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Ourselves to 

Public Discourse 
in the Age of 
Show Business 

Neil Postman 

New Introduction by Andrew Postman 




Introduction to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition vii 
In 1985 . . . xvii 
Foreword xix 


1. The Medium Is the Metaphor 3 

2. Media as Epistemology 16 

3. Typographic America 30 

4. The Typographic Mind 44 

5. The Peek-a-Boo World 64 

Part II 

6. The Age of Show Business 83 

7. "Now . . . This" 99 

8. Shuffle Off to Bethlehem 114 

9. Reach Out and Elect Someone 125 

10. Teaching as an Amusing Activity 142 

11. The Huxleyan Warning 155 

Notes 165 

Bibliography 173 
Index 177 

Introduction to the Twentieth 
Anniversary Edition 

Now this? 

A book of social commentary published twenty years ago? 
You're not busy enough writing e-mails, returning calls, down- 
loading tunes, playing games (online, PlayStation, Game Boy), 
checking out Web sites, sending text messages, IM'ing, Tivoing, 
watching what you've Tivoed, browsing through magazines 
and newspapers, reading new books — now you've got to stop 
and read a book that first appeared in the last century, not to 
mention the last millennium? Come on. Like your outlook on 
today could seriously be rocked by this plain-spoken provoca- 
tion about The World of 1985, a world yet to be infiltrated by 
the Internet, cell phones, PDAs, cable channels by the hun- 
dreds, DVDs, call-waiting, caller ID, blogs, flat-screens, HDTV, 
and iPods? Is it really plausible that this slim volume, with its 
once-urgent premonitions about the nuanced and deep-seated 
perils of television, could feel timely today, the Age of Comput- 
ers? Is it really plausible that this book about how TV is turn- 
ing all public life (education, religion, politics, journalism) into 
entertainment; how the image is undermining other forms of 
communication, particularly the written word; and how our 
bottomless appetite for TV will make content so abundantly 
available, context be damned, that we'll be overwhelmed by 
"information glut" until what is truly meaningful is lost and 
we no longer care what we've lost as long as we're being 
amused. . . . Can such a book possibly have relevance to you 
and The World of 2006 and beyond? 

Introduction to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition viii 

I think you've answered your own question. 

I, too, think the answer is yes, but as Neil Postman's son. I'm 
biased. Where are we to find objective corroboration that read- 
ing Amusing Ourselves to Death in 2006, in a society that worships 
TV and technology as ours does, is nearly an act of defiance, 
one of those I-didn't-realize-it-was-dark-until-someone-flipped- 
the-switch encounters with an illuminating intellect? Let's not 
take the word of those who studied under my father at New 
York University, many of whom have gone on to teach in their 
own college (and occasionally high school) courses what he 
argues in these pages. These fine minds are, as my father's 
was, of a bygone era, a different media environment, and their 
biases may make them, as they made him, hostage of another 
time, perhaps incapable of seeing the present world as it is 
rather than as they'd like it to be. (One man's R rating is an- 
other's PG-13.) And just to make a clean slate of it, let's not 
rely, either, on the opinions of the numerous readers of the 
original edition of Amusing Ourselves to Death (translated into a 
dozen languages, including German, Indonesian, Turkish, 
Danish and, most recently, Chinese), so many of whom wrote 
to my father, or buttonholed him at public speaking events, to 
tell him how dead-on his argument was. Their support, while 
genuine, was expressed over the last two decades, so some of 
it might be outdated. We'll disregard the views of these teach- 
ers and students, businesspeople and artists, conservatives and 
liberals, atheists and churchgoers, and all those parents. (We'll 
also disregard Roger Waters, cofounder of the legendary band 
Pink Floyd, whose solo album. Amused to Death, was inspired 
by the book. Go, Dad.) 

So whose opinion matters? 

In rereading this book to figure out what might be said 
about it twenty years later, I tried to think the way my father 
would, since he could no longer. He died in October 2003, at 
age seventy-two. Channeling him, I realized immediately who 

Introduction to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition ix 

offers the best test of whether Amusing Ourselves to Death is still 

College kids. 

Today's eighteen-to-twenty-two-year-olds live in a vastly 
different media environment from the one that existed in 
1985. Their relationship to TV differs. Back then, MTV was in 
its late infancy. Today, news scrolls and corner-of-the-screen 
promos and "reality" shows and infomercials and nine hun- 
dred channels are the norm. And TV no longer dominates the 
media landscape. "Screen time" also means hours spent in 
front of the computer, video monitor, cell phone, and hand- 
held. Multitasking is standard. Communities have been replaced 
by demographics. Silence has been replaced by background 
noise. It's a different world. 

(It's different for all of us, of course — children, young teens, 
parents, seniors — but college kids form an especially rich 
grouping, poised between innocence and sophistication, re- 
spect and irreverence.) 

When today's students are assigned Amusing Ourselves to 
Death, almost none of them have heard of Neil Postman or 
been exposed to his ideas (he wrote more than twenty books, 
on such subjects as education, language, childhood, and tech- 
nology), suggesting that their views, besides being pertinent, 
are relatively uncorrupted. I called several of my father's for- 
mer students who are now teachers, and who teach Amusing 
Ourselves to Death in courses that examine some cross-section of 
ideas about TV, culture, computing, technology, mass media, 
communications, politics, journalism, education, religion, and 
language. I asked the teachers what their students thought of 
the book, particularly its timeliness. The teachers were kind 
enough to share many of their students' thoughts, from papers 
and class discussion. 

"In the book [Postman] makes the point that there is no re- 
flection time in the world anymore," said a student named 

Introduction to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition 

Jonathan. "When I go to a restaurant, everyone's on their cell 
phone, talking or playing games. I have no ability to sit by my- 
self and just think." Said Liz: "It's more relevant now. In class we 
asked if, now that there's cable, which there really wasn't when 
the book was written, are there channels that are not just about 
entertainment? We tried to find one to disprove his theory. One 
kid said the Weather Channel but another mentioned how they 
have all those shows on tornadoes and try to make weather 
fun. The only good example we came up with was C-SPAN, 
which no one watches." Cara: "Teachers are not considered 
good if they don't entertain their classes." Remarked Ben 
(whose professor called him the "class skeptic," and who, when 
the book was assigned, groaned, "Why do we have to read 
this?"): "Postman says TV makes everything about the present — 
and there we were, criticizing the book because it wasn't pub- 
lished yesterday." Reginald: 'This book is not just about TV." 
Sandra: "The book was absolutely on target about the 2004 pres- 
idential election campaign and debates." One student pointed 
out that Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy for 
the California governorship on The Tonight Show. Maria noted 
that the oversimplification and thinking "fragmentation" pro- 
moted by TV-watching may have contributed to our Red State/ 
Blue State polarization. Another noted the emergence of a 
new series of "Bible magazines," whose cover format is mod- 
eled on teen magazines, with cover lines like "Top 10 Tips to 
Getting Closer to God" — "it's religion mimicking an MTV kind 
of world," said the student. Others wondered if the recent 
surge in children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder was 
an indication of a need to be constantly stimulated. 

Kaitlin switched her major to print journalism after reading 
the book. Andrea would recommend it to anyone concerned 
with media ethics. Mike said even those who won't agree with 
the book's arguments — as he did not — should still read it, to be 
provoked. Many students ("left wingers and right wingers 
both," said the professor) were especially taken with my fa- 

Introduction to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition xi 

ther's "Now . . . this" idea: the phenomenon whereby the re- 
porting of a horrific event — a rape or a five-alarm fire or global 
warming — is followed immediately by the anchor's cheerfully 
exclaiming "Now . . . this," which segues into a story about 
Janet Jackson's exposed nipple or a commercial for lite beer, 
creating a sequencing of information so random, so disparate 
in scale and value, as to be incoherent, even psychotic. 

Another teacher remarked that students love how the book is 
told — by a writer who's at heart a storyteller. "They love that he 
refers to books and people they've heard of," she said. Alison: 
"He doesn't dumb it down — he makes allusions to great art and 
poetry." Matt said that, ironically, "Postman proves you can be 
entertaining — and without a single picture." Of her students' 
impressions, one teacher said, "He speaks to them without jar- 
gon, in a way in which they feel respected. They feel he's just 
having a conversation with them, but inspiring them to think at 
the same time." Another professor noted that "kids come to the 
conclusion that TV is almost exclusively interested in present- 
ing show business and sensationalism and in making money. 
Amazing as it seems, they had never realized that before." 

It no doubt appears to you that, after all my grand talk of ob- 
jectivity, I've stacked the deck in favor of the book's virtue. But 
that's honestly the overwhelming reaction — at least among a 
slice of Generation Y, a population segment that one can imag- 
ine has as many reasons not to like the book as to like it. One 
professor said that in a typical class of twenty-five students who 
read the book, twenty-three will write papers that either praise, 
or are animated by, its ideas; two will say the book was a stupid 
waste of time. A 92 percent rating? There's no one who ex- 
presses an idea — certainly no politician — who wouldn't take 
that number. 

Of course, students had criticisms of the book, too. Many 
didn't appreciate the assault on television — a companion to 
them, a source of pleasure and comfort — and felt as if they 
had to defend their culture. Some considered TV their parents' 

Introduction to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition xii 

culture, not theirs — they are of the Internet — so the book's the- 
ses were less relevant. Some thought my father was anti-change, 
that he so exalted the virtues fostered by the written word and its 
culture, he was not open to acknowledging many of the positive 
social improvements TV had brought about, and what a demo- 
cratic and leveling force it could be. Some disagreed with his as- 
sessment that TV is in complete charge: remote control, an 
abundance of channels, and VCRs and DVRs all enable you to 
"customize" your programming, even to skip commercials. A 
common critique was that he should have offered solutions; you 
can't put the toothpaste back in the tube, after all, so what now? 

And there was this: Yeah, what he said in 1985 had come 
startlingly true, we had amused ourselves to death ... so why 
read it? 

One professor uses the book in conjunction with an experi- 
ment she calls an "e-media fast." For twenty-four hours, each 
student must refrain from electronic media. When she an- 
nounces the assignment, she told me, 90 percent of the stu- 
dents shrug, thinking it's no big deal. But when they realize all 
the things they must give up for a whole day — cell phone, 
computer, Internet, TV, car radio, etc. — "they start to moan 
and groan." She tells them they can still read books. She ac- 
knowledges it will be a tough day, though for roughly eight of 
the twenty-four hours they'll be asleep. She says if they break 
the fast — if they answer the phone, say, or simply have to 
check e-mail — they must begin from scratch. 

"The papers I get back are amazing," says the professor. 
"They have titles like 'The Worst Day of My Life' or 'The Best 
Experience I Ever Had,' always extreme. 'I thought I was going 
to die,' they'll write. 'I went to turn on the TV but if I did I re- 
alized, my God, I'd have to start all over again.' Each student 
has his or her own weakness — for some it's TV, some the cell 
phone, some the Internet or their PDA. But no matter how 
much they hate abstaining, or how hard it is to hear the phone 
ring and not answer it, they take time to do things they 

Introduction to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition xiii 

haven't done in years. They actually walk down the street to 
visit their friend. They have extended conversations. One 
wrote, 'I thought to do things I hadn't thought to do ever.' The 
experience changes them. Some are so affected that they de- 
termine to fast on their own, one day a month. In that course 
I take them through the classics — from Plato and Aristotle 
through today — and years later, when former students write 
or call to say hello, the thing they remember is the media fast." 

Like the media fast. Amusing Ourselves to Death is a call to ac- 
tion. It is, in my father's words, "an inquiry . . . and a lamenta- 
tion," yes, but it aspires to greater things. It is an exhortation to 
do something. It's a counterpunch to what my father thought 
daily TV news was: "inert, consisting of information that gives 
us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful 
action." Dad was a lover of history, a champion for collective 
memory and what we now quaintly refer to as "civilizing in- 
fluences," but he did not live in the past. His book urges us to 
claim a way to be more alert and engaged. His ideas are still 
here, he isn't, and it's time for the reins to be grabbed by those 
of a new generation, natives of this brave new world who un- 
derstand it better. 

Twenty years isn't what it used to be. Where once it stood 
for a single generation, now it seems to stand for three. Every- 
thing moves faster. "Change changed," my father wrote in an- 
other book. 

A lot has changed since this book appeared. News consump- 
tion among the young is way down. Network news and enter- 
tainment divisions are far more entwined, despite protests 
(some genuine, some perhaps not) by the news divisions. 
When Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, 
went on CNN's Crossfire to make this very point — that serious 
news and show business ought to be distinguishable, for the 
sake of public discourse and the republic — the hosts seemed 
incapable of even understanding the words coming out of his 

Introduction to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition 


mouth. The sound bite is now more like a sound nibble, and 
it's rare, even petulant, to hear someone challenge its absurd 
insubstantiality; "the question of how television affects us has 
receded into the background" (Dad's words, not mine, from 
1985). Fox News has established itself, and thrived. Corporate 
conglomeration is up, particularly among media companies. 
Our own media companies don't provide truly gruesome war 
images as part of the daily news, but then they didn't do so 
twenty years ago either (though forty years ago they did). The 
quality of graphics (i.e., the reality quotient) of computer and 
video games is way up. Communities exist that didn't, thanks 
to the Internet, particularly peer-to-peer computing. A new 
kind of collaborative creativity abounds, thanks to the "open 
source" movement, which gave us the Linux operating system. 
However, other communities are collapsing: Far fewer people 
join clubs that meet regularly, fewer families eat dinner to- 
gether, and people don't have friends over or know their 
neighbors the way they used to. More school administrators 
and politicians and business executives hanker to wire schools 
for computers, as if that is the key to improving American ed- 
ucation. The number of hours the average American watches 
TV has remained steady, at about four and a half hours a day, 
every day (by age sixty-five, a person will have spent twelve 
uninterrupted years in front of the TV). Childhood obesity is 
way up. Some things concern our children more than they 
used to, some not at all. Maybe there's more hope than there 
was, maybe less. Maybe the amount is a constant. 

Substantive as this book is, it was predicated on a "hook": 
that one British writer (George Orwell) with a frightening vi- 
sion of the future, a vision that many feared would come true, 
was mostly off-base, while another British writer (Aldous 
Huxley) with a frightening vision of the future, a vision less 
well-known and less feared, was scarily on target. My father 
argued his point, persuasively, but it was a point for another 
time — the Age of Television. New technologies and media are 

Introduction to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition 


in the ascendancy. Fortunately — and this, more than anything, 
is what I think makes Amusing Ourselves to Death so emphati- 
cally relevant — my father asked such good questions that they 
can be asked of non-television things, of all sorts of transform- 
ing developments and events that have happened since 1985, 
and since his death, and of things still unformed, for genera- 
tions to come (though ‘"generations to come" may someday 
mean a span of three years). His questions can be asked about 
all technologies and media. What happens to us when we be- 
come infatuated with and then seduced by them? Do they free 
us or imprison us? Do they improve or degrade democracy? 
Do they make our leaders more accountable or less so? Our 
system more transparent or less so? Do they make us better 
citizens or better consumers? Are the trade-offs worth it? If 
they're not worth it, yet we still can't stop ourselves from em- 
bracing the next new thing because that's just how we're 
wired, then what strategies can we devise to maintain control? 
Dignity? Meaning? My father was not a curmudgeon about all 
this, as some thought. It was never optimism he lacked; it was 
certainty. "We must be careful in praising or condemning be- 
cause the future may hold surprises for us," he wrote. Nor did 
he fear TV across the board (as some thought). Junk television 
was fine. * The A-Team and Cheers are no threat to our public 
health," he wrote. “60 Minutes, Eyewitness News, and Sesame 
Street are." 

A student of Dad's, a teacher himself, says his own students are 
more responsive to Amusing Ourselves to Death, not less, than they 
were five or ten years ago. "When the book first came out, it was 
ahead of its time, and some people didn't understand its reach," 
he says. "It's a twenty-first century book published in the twenti- 
eth century." In 1986, soon after the book was published and had 
started to make ripples. Dad was on ABC's Nightline, discussing 
with Ted Koppel the effect TV can have on society if we let it con- 
trol us, rather than vice versa. As I recall, at one juncture, to illus- 
trate his point that our brief attention span and our appetite for 

Introduction to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition 


feel-good content can short-circuit any meaningful discourse. 
Dad said, "For example, Ted, we're having an important discus- 
sion about the culture but in thirty seconds we'll have to break 
for a commercial to sell cars or toothpaste." 

Mr. Koppel, one of the rare serious figures on network tele- 
vision, smiled wryly — or was it fatigue? 

"Actually, Dr. Postman," he said, "it's more like ten seconds." 

There's still time. 

Andrew Postman 
Brooklyn, New York 
November 2005 

In 1985 

If you were alert back then, this refresher may be unnecessary, 
even laughable. If you were not alert then, this may just be 
laughable. But it also may help to clarify references in the book 
about things of that moment. In 1985: 

The United States population is 240 million. The Cold War is 
still on, though Mikhail Gorbachev has just become the Soviet 
leader. Ronald Reagan is president. Other major political figures 
include Walter "Fritz' Mondale, Democratic presidential nomi- 
nee the year before; Geraldine Ferraro, his vice-presidential 
running mate; and presidential hopefuls/Senators Gary Hart 
and John Glenn (the latter a former astronaut). Ed Koch is 
mayor of New York City. David Garth is a top media consultant 
for political candidates. 

Top-rated TV shows include Dynasty, Dallas (though it has 
been several years since the drama of "Who Shot J.R.?" 
gripped the TV-watching nation). The A-Team, Cheers, and Hill 
Street Blues. Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings are 
the nightly network news anchors. The MacNeil/Lehrer News- 
Hour is, as The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer years later will be, 
public television's respected, low-rated evening news program. 
Televangelism is enjoying a heyday: leading practitioners in- 
clude Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Billy Gra- 
ham, Jerry Falwell, Robert Schuller, and Oral Roberts. Howard 
Cosell has recently retired after many years as TV's most rec- 
ognizable sports voice. The show Entertainment Tonight and the 
cable network MTV, both born a few years earlier, are runaway 


In 1985 . . . xviii 

successes. Two of the most successful TV commercial cam- 
paigns are American Express's series about farflung tourists 
losing travelers' checks and Wisk detergent's spot about "ring 
around the collar" (about which my father wrote a provocative 
and funny essay called "The Parable of the Ring Around the 

The Mac computer is one year old, USA Today three. People 
magazine ten. Dr. Ruth Westheimer hosts a popular radio call- 
in show, offering sex advice with cheer and grandmotherly 
frankness. African Americans are known as blacks. Martina 
Navratilova is the world's best female tennis player. Trivial Pur- 
suit is a top-selling board game. Certain entertainers to whom 
my father refers — e.g., comedians Shecky Greene, Red Buttons, 
and Milton Berle, singer Dionne Warwick, TV talk-show host 
David Susskind — are past their prime, even then. 



We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and 
the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise 
of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wher- 
ever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been 
visited by Orwellian nightmares. 

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, 
there was another — slightly older, slightly less well known, 
equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to 
common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell 
did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be 
overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's 
vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their au- 
tonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to 
love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their 
capacities to think. 

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What 
Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, 
for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell 
feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley 
feared those who would give us so much that we would be 
reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth 
would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be 
drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would be- 
come a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a triv- 
ial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the 
orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley re- 




marked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and 
rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed 
to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distrac- 
tions." In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflict- 
ing pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting 
pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. 
Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. 

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, 
was right. 



The Medium 
Is the Metaphor 

At different times in our history, different cities have been the 
focal point of a radiating American spirit. In the late eighteenth 
century, for example, Boston was the center of a political radi- 
calism that ignited a shot heard round the world — a shot that 
could not have been fired any other place but the suburbs of 
Boston. At its report, all Americans, including Virginians, be- 
came Bostonians at heart. In the mid-nineteenth century. New 
York became the symbol of the idea of a melting-pot America — 
or at least a non- English one — as the wretched refuse from all 
over the world disembarked at Ellis Island and spread over the 
land their strange languages and even stranger ways. In the 
early twentieth century, Chicago, the city of big shoulders and 
heavy winds, came to symbolize the industrial energy and dy- 
namism of America. If there is a statue of a hog butcher some- 
where in Chicago, then it stands as a reminder of the time when 
America was railroads, cattle, steel mills and entrepreneurial 
adventures. If there is no such statue, there ought to be, just as 
there is a statue of a Minute Man to recall the Age of Boston, as 
the Statue of Liberty recalls the Age of New York. 

Today, we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a 
metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a 
thirty-foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a cho- 
rus girl. For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of 
entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in 
which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of enter- 
tainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and 


Amusing Ourselves to Death 


commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of 
show business, largely without protest or even much popular 
notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amus- 
ing ourselves to death. 

As I write, the President of the United States is a former Hol- 
lywood movie actor. One of his principal challengers in 1984 
was once a featured player on television's most glamorous 
show of the 1960's, that is to say, an astronaut. Naturally, a 
movie has been made about his extraterrestrial adventure. For- 
mer nominee George McGovern has hosted the popular televi- 
sion show "Saturday Night Live." So has a candidate of more 
recent vintage, the Reverend Jesse Jackson. 

Meanwhile, former President Richard Nixon, who once 
claimed he lost an election because he was sabotaged by make- 
up men, has offered Senator Edward Kennedy advice on how to 
make a serious run for the presidency: lose twenty pounds. Al- 
though the Constitution makes no mention of it, it would ap- 
pear that fat people are now effectively excluded from running 
for high political office. Probably bald people as well. Almost 
certainly those whose looks are not significantly enhanced by 
the cosmetician's art. Indeed, we may have reached the point 
where cosmetics has replaced ideology as the field of expertise 
over which a politician must have competent control. 

America's journalists, i.e., television newscasters, have not 
missed the point. Most spend more time with their hair dryers 
than with their scripts, with the result that they comprise the 
most glamorous group of people this side of Las Vegas. Al- 
though the Federal Communications Act makes no mention of 
it, those without camera appeal are excluded from addressing 
the public about what is called "the news of the day." Those 
with camera appeal can command salaries exceeding one mil- 
lion dollars a year. 

American businessmen discovered, long before the rest of us, 
that the quality and usefulness of their goods are subordinate to 
the artifice of their display; that, in fact, half the principles of 

The Medium Is the Metaphor 


capitalism as praised by Adam Smith or condemned by Karl 
Marx are irrelevant. Even the Japanese, who are said to make 
better cars than the Americans, know that economics is less a 
science than a performing art, as Toyota's yearly advertising 
budget confirms. 

Not long ago, I saw Billy Graham join with Shecky Green, 
Red Buttons, Dionne Warwick, Milton Berle and other theolo- 
gians in a tribute to George Bums, who was celebrating himself 
for surviving eighty years in show business. The Reverend 
Graham exchanged one-liners with Bums about making prepa- 
rations for Eternity. Although the Bible makes no mention of it, 
the Reverend Graham assured the audience that God loves 
those who make people laugh. It was an honest mistake. He 
merely mistook NBC for God. 

Dr. Ruth Westheimer is a psychologist who has a popular ra- 
dio program and a nightclub act in which she informs her audi- 
ences about sex in all of its infinite variety and in language once 
reserved for the bedroom and street comers. She is almost as 
entertaining as the Reverend Billy Graham, and has been 
quoted as saying, "I don't start out to be funny. But if it comes 
out that way, I use it. If they call me an entertainer, I say that's 
great. When a professor teaches with a sense of humor, people 
walk away remembering." 1 She did not say what they remem- 
ber or of what use their remembering is. But she has a point: It's 
great to be an entertainer. Indeed, in America God favors all 
those who possess both a talent and a format to amuse, whether 
they be preachers, athletes, entrepreneurs, politicians, teachers 
or journalists. In America, the least amusing people are its pro- 
fessional entertainers. 

Culture watchers and worriers — those of the type who read 
books like this one — will know that the examples above are not 
aberrations but, in fact, cliches. There is no shortage of critics 
who have observed and recorded the dissolution of public dis- 
course in America and its conversion into the arts of show busi- 
ness. But most of them, I believe, have barely begun to tell the 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


story of the origin and meaning of this descent into a vast triv- 
iality. Those who have written vigorously on the matter tell us, 
for example, that what is happening is the residue of an ex- 
hausted capitalism; or, on the contrary, that it is the tasteless 
fruit of the maturing of capitalism; or that it is the neurotic af- 
termath of the Age of Freud; or the retribution of our allowing 
God to perish; or that it all comes from the old stand-bys, greed 
and ambition. 

I have attended carefully to these explanations, and I do not 
say there is nothing to learn from them. Marxists, Freudians, 
Levi-Straussians, even Creation Scientists are not to be taken 
lightly. And, in any case, I should be very surprised if the story I 
have to tell is anywhere near the whole truth. We are all, as 
Huxley says someplace. Great Abbreviators, meaning that none 
of us has the wit to know the whole truth, the time to tell it if 
we believed we did, or an audience so gullible as to accept it. 
But you will find an argument here that presumes a clearer 
grasp of the matter than many that have come before. Its value, 
such as it is, resides in the directness of its perspective, which 
has its origins in observations made 2,300 years ago by Plato. It 
is an argument that fixes its attention on the forms of human 
conversation, and postulates that how we are obliged to con- 
duct such conversations will have the strongest possible influ- 
ence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what 
ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the impor- 
tant content of a culture. 

I use the word "conversation" metaphorically to refer not 
only to speech but to all techniques and technologies that per- 
mit people of a particular culture to exchange messages. In this 
sense, all culture is a conversation or, more precisely, a corpora- 
tion of conversations, conducted in a variety of symbolic modes. 
Our attention here is on how forms of public discourse regulate 
and even dictate what kind of content can issue from such 

To take a simple example of what this means, consider the 

The Medium Is the Metaphor 


primitive technology of smoke signals. While I do not know 
exactly what content was once carried in the smoke signals of 
American Indians, I can safely guess that it did not include 
philosophical argument. Puffs of smoke are insufficiently com- 
plex to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they 
were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either 
wood or blankets long before he reached his second axiom. You 
cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the 

To take an example closer to home: As I suggested earlier, it is 
implausible to imagine that anyone like our twenty-seventh 
President, the multi-chinned, three-hundred-pound William 
Howard Taft, could be put forward as a presidential candidate 
in today's world. The shape of a man's body is largely irrelevant 
to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writ- 
ing or on the radio or, for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is 
quite relevant on television. The grossness of a three-hundred- 
pound image, even a talking one, would easily overwhelm any 
logical or spiritual subtleties conveyed by speech. For on televi- 
sion, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, 
which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, 
not words. The emergence of the image-manager in the political 
arena and the concomitant decline of the speech writer attest to 
the fact that television demands a different kind of content from 
other media. You cannot do political philosophy on television. 
Its form works against the content. 

To give still another example, one of more complexity: The 
information, the content, or, if you will, the ''stuff" that makes 
up what is called "the news of the day" did not exist — could 
not exist — in a world that lackecf the media to give it expres- 
sion. I do not mean that things like fires, wars, murders and 
love affairs did not, ever and always, happen in places all over 
the world. I mean that lacking a technology to advertise them, 
people could not attend to them, could not include them in 
their daily business. Such information simply could not exist as 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


part of the content of culture. This idea — that there is a content 
called "the news of the day" — was entirely created by the tele- 
graph (and since amplified by newer media), which made it 
possible to move decontextualized information over vast spaces 
at incredible speed. The news of the day is a figment of our 
technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event. 
We attend to fragments of events from all over the world be- 
cause we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to 
fragmented conversation. Cultures without speed-of-light me- 
dia — let us say, cultures in which smoke signals are the most 
efficient space-conquering tool available — do not have news of 
the day. Without a medium to create its form, the news of the 
day does not exist. 

To say it, then, as plainly as I can, this book is an inquiry into 
and a lamentation about the most significant American cultural 
fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of 
the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Televi- 
sion. This change-over has dramatically and irreversibly shifted 
the content and meaning of public discourse, since two media 
so vastly different cannot accommodate the same ideas. As the 
influence of print wanes, the content of politics, religion, educa- 
tion, and anything else that comprises public business must 
change and be recast in terms that are most suitable to tele- 

If all of this sounds suspiciously like Marshall McLuhan's 
aphorism, the medium is the message, I will not disavow the 
association (although it is fashionable to do so among respect- 
able scholars who, were it not for McLuhan, would today be 
mute). I met McLuhan thirty years ago when I was a graduate 
student and he an unknown English professor. I believed then, 
as I believe now, that he spoke in the tradition of Orwell and 
Huxley — that is, as a prophesier, and I have remained steadfast 
to his teaching that the clearest way to see through a culture is 
to attend to its tools for conversation. I might add that my inter- 
est in this point of view was first stirred by a prophet far more 

The Medium Is the Metaphor 


formidable than McLuhan, more ancient than Plato. In study- 
ing the Bible as a young man, 1 found intimations of the idea 
that forms of media favor particular kinds of content and there- 
fore are capable of taking command of a culture. I refer specifi- 
cally to the Decalogue, the Second Commandment of which 
prohibits the Israelites from making concrete images of any- 
thing. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, any 
likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the 
earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth." I won- 
dered then, as so many others have, as to why the God of these 
people would have included instructions on how they were to 
symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience. It is a strange 
injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author 
assumed a connection between forms of human communication and 
the quality of a culture. We may hazard a guess that a people who 
are being asked to embrace an abstract, universal deity would 
be rendered unfit to do so by the habit of drawing pictures or 
making statues or depicting their ideas in any concrete, icono- 
graphic forms. The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word 
and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring 
the highest order of abstract thinking. Iconography thus became 
blasphemy so that a new kind of God could enter a culture. 
People like ourselves who are in the process of converting their 
culture from word-centered to image-centered might profit by 
reflecting on this Mosaic injunction. But even if I am wrong in 
these conjectures, it is, I believe, a wise and particularly relevant 
supposition that the media of communication available to a cul- 
ture are a dominant influence on the formation of the culture's 
intellectual and social preoccupations. 

Speech, of course, is the primal and indispensable medium. It 
made us human, keeps us human, and in fact defines what hu- 
man means. This is not to say that if there were no other means 
of communication all humans would find it equally convenient 
to speak about the same things in the same way. We know 
enough about language to understand that variations in the 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


structures of languages will result in variations in what may be 
called "world view." How people think about time and space, 
and about things and processes, will be greatly influenced by 
the grammatical features of their language. We dare not sup- 
pose therefore that all human minds are unanimous in under- 
standing how the world is put together. But how much more 
divergence there is in world view among different cultures can 
be imagined when we consider the great number and variety of 
tools for conversation that go beyond speech. For although cul- 
ture is a creation of speech, it is recreated anew by every me- 
dium of communication — from painting to hieroglyphs to the 
alphabet to television. Each medium, like language itself, makes 
possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orien- 
tation for thought, for expression, for sensibility. Which, of 
course, is what McLuhan meant in saying the medium is the 
message. His aphorism, however, is in need of amendment be- 
cause, as it stands, it may lead one to confuse a message with a 
metaphor. A message denotes a specific, concrete statement 
about the world. But the forms of our media, including the 
symbols through which they permit conversation, do not make 
such statements. They are rather like metaphors, working by 
unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special 
definitions of reality. Whether we are experiencing the world 
through the lens of speech or the printed word or the television 
camera, our media-metaphors classify the world for us, se- 
quence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for 
what the world is like. As Ernst Cassirer remarked: 

Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man's symbolic 
activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves 
man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so 
enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythi- 
cal symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything 
except by the interposition of [an] artificial medium . 2 

The Medium Is the Metaphor 1 1 

What is peculiar about such interpositions of media is that 
their role in directing what we will see or know is so rarely 
noticed. A person who reads a book or who watches television 
or who glances at his watch is not usually interested in how his 
mind is organized and controlled by these events, still less in 
what idea of the world is suggested by a book, television, or a 
watch. But there are men and women who have noticed these 
things, especially in our own times. Lewis Mumford, for exam- 
ple, has been one of our great noticers. He is not the sort of a 
man who looks at a clock merely to see what time it is. Not that 
he lacks interest in the content of clocks, which is of concern to 
everyone from moment to moment, but he is far more inter- 
ested in how a clock creates the idea of “moment to moment." 
He attends to the philosophy of clocks, to clocks as metaphor, 
about which our education has had little to say and clock 
makers nothing at all. “The dock," Mumford has concluded, 
“is a piece of power machinery whose 'product' is seconds and 
minutes." In manufacturing such a product, the clock has the 
effect of disassociating time from human events and thus nour- 
ishes the belief in an independent world of mathematically 
measurable sequences. Moment to moment, it turns out, is not 
God's conception, or nature's. It is man conversing with himself 
about and through a piece of machinery he created. 

In Mumford's great book Technics and Civilization, he shows 
how, beginning in the fourteenth century, the clock made us 
into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers. 
In the process, we have learned irreverence toward the sun and 
the seasons, for in a world made up of seconds and minutes, the 
authority of nature is superseded. Indeed, as Mumford points 
out, with the invention of the clock. Eternity ceased to serve as 
the measure and focus of human events. And thus, though few 
would have imagined the connection, the inexorable ticking of 
the clock may have had more to do with the weakening of 
God's supremacy than all the treatises produced by the phi- 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 12 

losophers of the Enlightenment; that is to say, the clock intro- 
duced a new form of conversation between man and God, in 
which God appears to have been the loser. Perhaps Moses 
should have included another Commandment: Thou shalt not 
make mechanical representations of time. 

That the alphabet introduced a new form of conversation be- 
tween man and man is by now a commonplace among schol- 
ars. To be able to see one's utterances rather than only to hear 
them is no small matter, though our education, once again, has 
had little to say about this. Nonetheless, it is clear that phonetic 
writing created a new conception of knowledge, as well as a 
new sense of intelligence, of audience and of posterity, all of 
which Plato recognized at an early stage in the development of 
texts. "No man of intelligence," he wrote in his Seventh Letter, 
"will venture to express his philosophical views in language, 
especially not in language that is unchangeable, which is true of 
that which is set down in written characters." This notwith- 
standing, he wrote voluminously and understood better than 
anyone else that the setting down of views in written characters 
would be the beginning of philosophy, not its end. Philosophy 
cannot exist without criticism, and writing makes it possible 
and convenient to subject thought to a continuous and concen- 
trated scrutiny. Writing freezes speech and in so doing gives 
birth to the grammarian, the logician, the rhetorician, the histo- 
rian, the scientist — all those who must hold language before 
them so that they can see what it means, where it errs, and 
where it is leading. 

Plato knew all of this, which means that he knew that writing 
would bring about a perceptual revolution: a shift from the ear 
to the eye as an organ of language processing. Indeed, there is a 
legend that to encourage such a shift Plato insisted that his stu- 
dents study geometry before entering his Academy. If true, it 
was a sound idea, for as the great literary critic Northrop Frye 
has remarked, "the written word is far more powerful than sim- 
ply a reminder: it re-creates the past in the present, and gives 

The Medium Is the Metaphor 


us, not the familiar remembered thing, but the glittering inten- 
sity of the summoned-up hallucination.” 3 

All that Plato surmised about the consequences of writing is 
now well understood by anthropologists, especially those who 
have studied cultures in which speech is the only source of 
complex conversation. Anthropologists know that the written 
word, as Northrop Frye meant to suggest, is not merely an echo 
of a speaking voice. It is another kind of voice altogether, a 
conjurer's trick of the first order. It must certainly have ap- 
peared that way to those who invented it, and that is why we 
should not be surprised that the Egyptian god Thoth, who is 
alleged to have brought writing to the King Thamus, was also 
the god of magic. People like ourselves may see nothing won- 
drous in writing, but our anthropologists know how strange 
and magical it appears to a purely oral people — a conversation 
with no one and yet with everyone. What could be stranger 
than the silence one encounters when addressing a question to 
a text? What could be more metaphysically puzzling than ad- 
dressing an unseen audience, as every writer of books must do? 
And correcting oneself because one knows that an unknown 
reader will disapprove 01 misunderstand? 

I bring all of this up because what my book is about is how 
our own tribe is undergoing a vast and trembling shift from the 
magic of writing to the magic of electronics. What I mean to 
point out here is that the introduction into a culture of a tech- 
nique such as writing or a clock is not merely an extension of 
man's power to bind time but a transformation of his way of 
thinking — and, of course, of the content of his culture. And that 
is what I mean to say by calling a medium a metaphor. We are 
told in school, quite correctly, that a metaphor suggests what a 
thing is like by comparing it to something else. And by the 
power of its suggestion, it so fixes a conception in our minds 
that we cannot imagine the one thing without the other: Light 
is a wave; language, a tree; God, a wise and venerable man; the 
mind, a dark cavern illuminated by knowledge. And if these 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


metaphors no longer serve us, we must, in the nature of the 
matter, find others that will. Light is a particle; language, a 
river; God (as Bertrand Russell proclaimed), a differential equa- 
tion; the mind, a garden that yearns to be cultivated. 

But our media -metaphors are not so explicit or so vivid as 
these, and they are far more complex. In understanding their 
metaphorical function, we must take into account the symbolic 
forms of their information, the source of their information, the 
quantity and speed of their information, the context in which 
their information is experienced. Thus, it takes some digging to 
get at them, to grasp, for example, that a clock recreates time as 
an independent, mathematically precise sequence; that writing 
recreates the mind as a tablet on which experience is written; 
that the telegraph recreates news as a commodity. And yet, 
such digging becomes easier if we start from the assumption 
that in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes be- 
yond the function of the thing itself. It has been pointed out, for 
example, that the invention of eyeglasses in the twelfth century 
not only made it possible to improve defective vision but sug- 
gested the idea that human beings need not accept as final 
either the endowments of nature or the ravages of time. Eye- 
glasses refuted the belief that anatomy is destiny by putting 
forward the idea that our bodies as well as our minds are im- 
provable. I do not think it goes too far to say that there is a link 
between the invention of eyeglasses in the twelfth century and 
gene-splitting research in the twentieth. 

Even such an instrument as the microscope, hardly a tool of 
everyday use, had embedded within it a quite astonishing idea, 
not about biology but about psychology. By revealing a world 
hitherto hidden from view, the microscope suggested a possibil- 
ity about the structure of the mind. 

If things are not what they seem, if microbes lurk, unseen, on 
and under our skin, if the invisible controls the visible, then is it 
not possible that ids and egos and superegos also lurk some- 
where unseen? What else is psychoanalysis but a microscope of 

The Medium Is the Metaphor 


the mind? Where do our notions of mind come from if not from 
metaphors generated by our tools? What does it mean to say 
that someone has an IQ of 1 26? There are no numbers in peo- 
ple's heads. Intelligence does not have quantity or magnitude, 
except as we believe that it does. And why do we believe that it 
does? Because we have tools that imply that this is what the 
mind is like. Indeed, our tools for thought suggest to us what 
our bodies are like, as when someone refers to her "biological 
clock," or when we talk of our "genetic codes," or when we 
read someone's face like a book, or when our facial expressions 
telegraph our intentions. 

When Galileo remarked that the language of nature is written 
in mathematics, he meant it only as a metaphor. Nature itself 
does not speak. Neither do our minds or our bodies or, more to 
the point of this book, our bodies politic. Our conversations 
about nature and about ourselves are conducted in whatever 
"languages" we find it possible and convenient to employ. We 
do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideol- 
ogy as "it" is but only as our languages are. And our languages 
are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors 
create the content of our culture. 

2 - 

Media as 

It is my intention in this book to show that a great media- 
metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that 
the content of much of our public discourse has become dan- 
gerous nonsense. With this in view, my task in the chapters 
ahead is straightforward. I must, first, demonstrate how. under 
the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was 
different from what it is now — generally coherent, serious and 
rational; and then how, under the governance of television, it 
has become shriveled and absurd. But to avoid the possibility 
that my analysis will be interpreted as standard-brand academic 
whimpering, a kind of elitist complaint against "junk” on tele- 
vision, I must first explain that my focus is on epistemology, not 
on aesthetics or literary criticism. Indeed, I appreciate junk as 
much as the next fellow, and I know full well that the printing 
press has generated enough of it to fill the Grand Canyon to 
overflowing. Television is not old enough to have matched 
printing's output of junk. 

And so, I raise no objection to television's junk. The best 
things on television are its junk, and no one and nothing is seri- 
ously threatened by it. Besides, we do not measure a culture by 
its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as 
significant. Therein is our problem, for television is at its most 
trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are 
high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural 
conversations. The irony here is that this is what intellectuals 
and critics are constantly urging television to do. The trouble 


Media as Epistemology 


with such people is that they do not take television seriously 
enough. For, like the printing press, television is nothing less 
than a philosophy of rhetoric. To talk seriously about television, 
one must therefore talk of epistemology. All other commentary 
is in itself trivial. 

Epistemology is a complex and usually opaque subject con- 
cerned with the origins and nature of knowledge. The part of its 
subject matter that is relevant here is the interest it takes in 
definitions of truth and the sources from which such definitions 
come. In particular, I want to show that definitions of truth are 
derived, at least in part, from the character of the media of com- 
munication through which information is conveyed. I want to 
discuss how media are implicated in our epistemologies. 

In the hope of simplifying what I mean by the title of this 
chapter, media as epistemology, I find it helpful to borrow a 
word from Northrop Frye, who has made use of a principle he 
calls resonance. “Through resonance," he writes, “a particular 
statement in a particular context acquires a universal signifi- 
cance." 1 Frye offers as an opening example the phrase "the 
grapes of wrath," which first appears in Isaiah in the context of 
a celebration of a prospective massacre of Edomites. But the 
phrase, Frye continues, "has long ago flown away from this 
context into many new contexts, contexts that give dignity to 
the human situation instead of merely reflecting its bigotries ." 2 
Having said this. Frye extends the idea of resonance so that it 
goes beyond phrases and sentences. A character in a play or 
story — Hamlet, for example, or Lewis Carroll's Alice — may 
have resonance. Objects may have resonance, and so may 
countries: "The smallest details of the geography of two tiny 
chopped- up countries, Greece and Israel, have imposed them- 
selves on our consciousness until they have become part of the 
map of our own imaginative world, whether we have ever seen 
these countries or not." 3 

In addressing the question of the source of resonance, Frye 
concludes that metaphor is the generative force — that is, the 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


power of a phrase, a book, a character, or a history to unify and 
invest with meaning a variety of attitudes or experiences. Thus, 
Athens becomes a metaphor of intellectual excellence, wher- 
ever we find it; Hamlet, a metaphor of brooding indecisiveness; 
Alice's wanderings, a metaphor of a search for order in a world 
of semantic nonsense. 

I now depart from Frye (who, 1 am certain, would raise no 
objection) but I take his word along with me. Every medium of 
communication, I am claiming, has resonance, for resonance is 
metaphor writ large. Whatever the original and limited context 
of its use may have been, a medium has the power to fly far 
beyond that context into new and unexpected ones. Because of 
the way it directs us to organize our minds and integrate our 
experience of the world, it imposes itself on our consciousness 
and social institutions in myriad forms. It sometimes has the 
power to become implicated in our concepts of piety, or good- 
ness, or beauty. And it is always implicated in the ways we 
define and regulate our ideas of truth. 

To explain how this happens — how the bias of a medium sits 
heavy, felt but unseen, over a culture — 1 offer three cases of 

The first is drawn from a tribe in western Africa that has no 
writing system but whose rich oral tradition has given form to 
its ideas of civil law. 4 When a dispute arises, the complainants 
come before the chief of the tribe and state their grievances. 
With no written law to guide him, the task of the chief is to 
search through his vast repertoire of proverbs and sayings to 
find one that suits the situation and is equally satisfying to both 
complainants. That accomplished, all parties are agreed that 
justice has been done, that the truth has been served. You will 
recognize, of course, that this was largely the method of Jesus 
and other Biblical figures who, living in an essentially oral cul- 
ture, drew upon all of the resources of speech, including mne- 
monic devices, formulaic expressions and parables, as a means 
of discovering and revealing truth. As Walter Ong points out, in 

Media as Epistemology 


oral cultures proverbs and sayings are not occasional devices: 
"They are incessant. They form the substance of thought itself. 
Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it 
consists in them ." 5 

To people like ourselves any reliance on proverbs and sayings 
is reserved largely for resolving disputes among or with chil- 
dren. "Possession is nine-tenths of the law." "First come, first 
served." "Haste makes waste." These are forms of speech we 
pull out in small crises with our young but would think ridicu- 
lous to produce in a courtroom where "serious" matters are to 
be decided. Can you imagine a bailiff asking a jury if it has 
reached a decision and receiving the reply that "to err is human 
but to forgive is divine"? Or even better, "Let us render unto 
Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God that which is God's"? 
For the briefest moment, the judge might be charmed but if a 
"serious" language form is not immediately forthcoming, the 
jury may end up with a longer sentence than most guilty de- 

Judges, lawyers and defendants do not regard proverbs or 
sayings as a relevant response to legal disputes. In this, they are 
separated from the tribal chief by a media- metaphor. For in a 
print-based courtroom, where law books, briefs, citations and 
other written materials define and organize the method of find- 
ing the truth, the oral tradition has lost much of its resonance — 
but not all of it. Testimony is expected to be given orally, on the 
assumption that the spoken, not the written, word is a truer 
reflection of the state of mind of a witness. Indeed, in many 
courtrooms jurors are not permitted to take notes, nor are they 
given written copies of the judge's explanation of the law. 
Jurors are expected to hear the truth, or its opposite, not to read 
it. Thus, we may say that there is a clash of resonances in our 
concept of legal truth. On the one hand, there is a residual belief 
in the power of speech, and speech alone, to carry the truth; on 
the other hand, there is a much stronger belief in the authen- 
ticity of writing and, in particular, printing. This second belief 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


has little tolerance for poetry, proverbs, sayings, parables or any 
other expressions of oral wisdom. The law is what legislators 
and judges have written. In our culture, lawyers do not have to 
be wise; they need to be well briefed. 

A similar paradox exists in universities, and with roughly the 
same distribution of resonances; that is to say, there are a few 
residual traditions based on the notion that speech is the pri- 
mary carrier of truth. But for the most part, university concep- 
tions of truth are tightly bound to the structure and logic of the 
printed word. To exemplify this point, I draw here on a personal 
experience that occurred during a still widely practiced medi- 
eval ritual known as a “doctoral oral.” I use the word medieval 
literally, for in the Middle Ages students were always examined 
orally, and the tradition is carried forward in the assumption 
that a candidate must be able to talk competently about his 
written work. But, of course, the written work matters most. 

In the case I have in mind, the issue of what is a legitimate 
form of truth-telling was raised to a level of consciousness 
rarely achieved. The candidate had included in his thesis a foot- 
note, intended as documentation of a quotation, which read; 
“Told to the investigator at the Roosevelt Hotel on January 18, 
1981, in the presence of Arthur Lingeman and Jerrold Gross.” 
This citation drew the attention of no fewer than four of the five 
oral examiners, all of whom observed that it was hardly suitable 
as a form of documentation and that it ought to be replaced by a 
citation from a book or article. “You are not a journalist,” one 
professor remarked. “You are supposed to be a scholar.” Per- 
haps because the candidate knew of no published statement of 
what he was told at the Roosevelt Hotel, he defended himself 
vigorously on the grounds that there were witnesses to what he 
was told, that they were available to attest to the accuracy of the 
quotation, and that the form in which an idea is conveyed is 
irrelevant to its truth. Carried away on the wings of his elo- 
quence, the candidate argued further that there were more than 
three hundred references to published works in his thesis and 

Media as Epistemology 


that it was extremely unlikely that any of them would be 
checked for accuracy by the examiners, by which he meant to 
raise the question. Why do you assume the accuracy of a print- 
referenced citation but not a speech -referenced one? 

The answer he received took the following line: You are mis- 
taken in believing that the form in which an idea is conveyed is 
irrelevant to its truth. In the academic world, the published 
word is invested with greater prestige and authenticity than the 
spoken word. What people say is assumed to be more casually 
uttered than what they write. The written word is assumed to 
have been reflected upon and revised by its author, reviewed by 
authorities and editors. It is easier to verify or refute, and it is 
invested with an impersonal and objective character, which is 
why, no doubt, you have referred to yourself in your thesis as 
"the investigator" and not by your name; that is to say, the 
written word is, by its nature, addressed to the world, not an 
individual. The written word endures, the spoken word dis- 
appears; and that is why writing is closer to the truth than 
speaking. Moreover, we are sure you would prefer that this 
commission produce a written statement that you have passed 
your examination (should you do so) than for us merely to tell 
you that you have, and leave it at that. Our written statement 
would represent the "truth.” Our oral agreement would be only 
a rumor. 

The candidate wisely said no more on the matter except to 
indicate that he would make whatever changes the commission 
suggested and that he profoundly wished that should he pass 
the "oral," a written document would attest to that fact. He did 
pass, and in time the proper words were written. 

A third example of the influence of media on our epistemol- 
ogies can be drawn from the trial of the great Socrates. At the 
opening of Socrates' defense, addressing a jury of five hundred, 
he apologizes for not having a well-prepared speech. He tells his 
Athenian brothers that he will falter, begs that they not inter- 
rupt him on that account, asks that they regard him as they 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


would a stranger from another city, and promises that he will 
tell them the truth, without adornment or eloquence. Begin- 
ning this way was, of course, characteristic of Socrates, but it 
was not characteristic of the age in which he lived. For, as Soc- 
rates knew full well, his Athenian brothers did not regard the 
principles of rhetoric and the expression of truth to be indepen- 
dent of each other. People like ourselves find great appeal in 
Socrates' plea because we are accustomed to thinking of rheto- 
ric as an ornament of speech — most often pretentious, super- 
ficial and unnecessary. But to the people who invented it, the 
Sophists of fifth-century b.c. Greece and their heirs, rhetoric 
was not merely an opportunity for dramatic performance but a 
near indispensable means of organizing evidence and proofs, 
and therefore of communicating truth. 6 

It was not only a key element in the education of Athenians 
(far more important than philosophy) but a preeminent art 
form. To the Greeks, rhetoric was a form of spoken writing. 
Though it always implied oral performance, its power to reveal 
the truth resided in the written word's power to display argu- 
ments in orderly progression. Although Plato himself disputed 
this conception of truth (as we might guess from Socrates' plea), 
his contemporaries believed that rhetoric was the proper means 
through which "right opinion" was to be both discovered and 
articulated. To disdain rhetorical rules, to speak one's thoughts 
in a random manner, without proper emphasis or appropriate 
passion, was considered demeaning to the audience's intelli- 
gence and suggestive of falsehood. Thus, we can assume that 
many of the 280 jurors who cast a guilty ballot against Socrates 
did so because his manner was not consistent with truthful mat- 
ter, as they understood the connection. 

The point I am leading to by this and the previous examples is 
that the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of 
forms of expression. Truth does not, and never has, come un- 
adorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not ac- 
knowledged, which is a way of saying that the "truth" is a kind 

Media as Epistemology 


of cultural prejudice. Each culture conceives of it as being most 
authentically expressed in certain symbolic forms that another 
culture may regard as trivial or irrelevant. Indeed, to the Greeks 
of Aristotle's time, and for two thousand years afterward, scien- 
tific truth was best discovered and expressed by deducing the 
nature of things from a set of self-evident premises, which ac- 
counts for Aristotle's believing that women have fewer teeth 
than men, and that babies are healthier if conceived when the 
wind is in the north. Aristotle was twice married but so far as 
we know, it did not occur to him to ask either of his wives if he 
could count her teeth. And as for his obstetric opinions, we are 
safe in assuming he used no questionnaires and hid behind no 
curtains. Such acts would have seemed to him both vulgar and 
unnecessary, for that was not the way to ascertain the truth of 
things. The language of deductive logic provided a surer road. 

We must not be too hasty in mocking Aristotle's prejudices. 
We have enough of our own, as for example, the equation we 
moderns make of truth and quantification. In this prejudice, we 
come astonishingly close to the mystical beliefs of Pythagoras 
and his followers who attempted to submit all of life to the sov- 
ereignty of numbers. Many of our psychologists, sociologists, 
economists and other latter-day cabalists will have numbers to 
tell them the truth or they will have nothing. Can you imagine, 
for example, a modern economist articulating truths about our 
standard of living by reciting a poem? Or by telling what hap- 
pened to him during a late-night walk through East St. Louis? 
Or by offering a series of proverbs and parables, beginning with 
the saying about a rich man, a camel, and the eye of a needle? 
The first would be regarded as irrelevant, the second merely 
anecdotal, the last childish. Yet these forms of language are cer- 
tainly capable of expressing truths about economic relation- 
ships, as well as any other relationships, and indeed have been 
employed by various peoples. But to the modern mind, resonat- 
ing with different media-metaphors, the truth in economics is 
believed to be best discovered and expressed in numbers. Per- 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


haps it is. I will not argue the point. I mean only to call attention 
to the fact that there is a certain measure of arbitrariness in the 
forms that truth-telling may take. We must remember that Gali- 
leo merely said that the language of nature is written in mathe- 
matics. He did not say everything is. And even the truth about 
nature need not be expressed in mathematics. For most of hu- 
man history, the language of nature has been the language of 
myth and ritual. These forms, one might add, had the virtues of 
leaving nature unthreatened and of encouraging the belief that 
human beings are part of it. It hardly befits a people who stand 
ready to blow up the planet to praise themselves too vigorously 
for having found the true way to talk about nature. 

In saying this, I am not making a case for epistemological 
relativism. Some ways of truth-telling are better than others, 
and therefore have a healthier influence on the cultures that 
adopt them. Indeed, I hope to persuade you that the decline 
of a print-based epistemology and the accompanying rise of a 
television- based epistemology has had grave consequences for 
public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute. And that is 
why it is necessary for me to drive hard the point that the 
weight assigned to any form of truth-telling is a function of the 
influence of media of communication. "Seeing is believing" has 
always had a preeminent status as an epistemological axiom, 
but "saying is believing," "reading is believing," "counting is 
believing," "deducing is believing," and "feeling is believing" 
are others that have risen or fallen in importance as cultures 
have undergone media change. As a culture moves from orality 
to writing to printing to televising, its ideas of truth move 
with it. Every philosophy is the philosophy of a stage of life, 
Nietzsche remarked. To which we might add that every epis- 
temology is the epistemology of a stage of media development. 
Truth, like time itself, is a product of a conversation man has 
with himself about and through the techniques of communica- 
tion he has invented. 

Since intelligence is primarily defined as one's capacity to 

Media as Epistemology 


grasp the truth of things, it follows that what a culture means by 
intelligence is derived from the character of its important forms 
of communication. In a purely oral culture, intelligence is often 
associated with aphoristic ingenuity, that is, the power to invent 
compact sayings of wide applicability. The wise Solomon, we 
are told in First Kings, knew three thousand proverbs. In a print 
culture, people with such a talent are thought to be quaint at 
best, more likely pompous bores. In a purely oral culture, a high 
value is always placed on the power to memorize, for where 
there are no written words, the human mind must function as a 
mobile library. To forget how something is to be said or done is 
a danger to the community and a gross form of stupidity. In a 
print culture, the memorization of a poem, a menu, a law or 
most anything else is merely charming. It is almost always func- 
tionally irrelevant and certainly not considered a sign of high 

Although the general character of print-intelligence would be 
known to anyone who would be reading this book, you may 
arrive at a reasonably detailed definition of it by simply consid- 
ering what is demanded of you as you read this book. You are 
required, first of all, to remain more or less immobile for a fairly 
long time. If you cannot do this (with this or any other book), 
our culture may label you as anything from hyperkinetic to un- 
disciplined; in any case, as suffering from some sort of intel- 
lectual deficiency. The printing press makes rather stringent 
demands on our bodies as well as our minds. Controlling your 
body is, however, only a minimal requirement. You must also 
have learned to pay no attention to the shapes of the letters on 
the page. You must see through them, so to speak, so that you 
can go directly to the meanings of the words they form. If you 
are preoccupied with the shapes of the letters, you will be an 
intolerably inefficient reader, likely to be thought stupid. If you 
have learned how to get to meanings without aesthetic distrac- 
tion, you are required to assume an attitude of detachment and 
objectivity. This includes your bringing to the task what 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


Bertrand Russell called an "immunity to eloquence," meaning 
that you are able to distinguish between the sensuous pleasure, 
or charm, or ingratiating tone (if such there be) of the words, 
and the logic of their argument. But at the same time, you must 
be able to tell from the tone of the language what is the author's 
attitude toward the subject and toward the reader. You must, in 
other words, know the difference between a joke and an argu- 
ment. And in judging the quality of an argument, you must be 
able to do several things at once, including delaying a verdict 
until the entire argument is finished, holding in mind questions 
until you have determined where, when or if the text answers 
them, and bringing to bear on the text all of your relevant expe- 
rience as a counterargument to what is being proposed. You 
must also be able to withhold those parts of your knowledge 
and experience which, in fact, do not have a bearing on the 
argument. And in preparing yourself to do all of this, you must 
have divested yourself of the belief that words are magical and, 
above all, have learned to negotiate the world of abstractions, 
for there are very few phrases and sentences in this book that 
require you to call forth concrete images. In a print-culture, we 
are apt to say of people who are not intelligent that we must 
"draw them pictures" so that they may understand. Intelligence 
implies that one can dwell comfortably without pictures, in a 
field of concepts and generalizations. 

To be able to do all of these things, and more, constitutes a 
primary definition of intelligence in a culture whose notions of 
truth are organized around the printed word. In the next two 
chapters I want to show that in the eighteenth and nineteenth 
centuries, America was such a place, perhaps the most print- 
oriented culture ever to have existed. In subsequent chapters, I 
want to show that in the twentieth century, our notions of truth 
and our ideas of intelligence have changed as a result of new 
media displacing the old. 

But I do not wish to oversimplify the matter more than is 
necessary. In particular, I want to conclude by making three 

Media as Epistemology 


points that may serve as a defense against certain counterargu- 
ments that careful readers may have already formed. 

The first is that at no point do I care to claim that changes in 
media bring about changes in the structure of people's minds or 
changes in their cognitive capacities. There are some who make 
this claim, or come close to it (for example, Jerome Bruner, 
Jack Goody, Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Julian Jaynes, 
and Eric Havelock). 7 1 am inclined to think they are right, but 
my argument does not require it. Therefore, I will not burden 
myself with arguing the possibility, for example, that oral peo- 
ple are less developed intellectually, in some Piagetian sense, 
than writing people, or that "television” people are less de- 
veloped intellectually than either. My argument is limited to 
saying that a major new medium changes the structure of dis- 
course; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by 
favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by 
demanding a certain kind of content — in a phrase, by creating 
new forms of truth-telling. I will say once again that I am no 
relativist in this matter, and that I believe the epistemology cre- 
ated by television not only is inferior to a print-based epistemol- 
ogy but is dangerous and absurdist. 

The second point is that the epistemological shift I have inti- 
mated, and will describe in detail, has not yet included (and 
perhaps never will include) everyone and everything. While 
some old media do, in fact, disappear (e.g., pictographic writing 
and illuminated manuscripts) and with them, the institutions 
and cognitive habits they favored, other forms of conversation 
will always remain. Speech, for example, and writing. Thus the 
epistemology of new forms such as television does not have an 
entirely unchallenged influence. 

I find it useful to think of the situation in this way: Changes 
in the symbolic environment are like changes in the natural 
environment; they are both gradual and additive at first, and 
then, all at once, a critical mass is achieved, as the physicists 
say. A river that has slowly been polluted suddenly becomes 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


toxic; most of the fish perish; swimming becomes a danger to 
health. But even then, the river may look the same and one 
may still take a boat ride on it. In other words, even when life 
has been taken from it, the river does not disappear, nor do all 
of its uses, but its value has been seriously diminished and its 
degraded condition will have harmful effects throughout the 
landscape. It is this way with our symbolic environment. We 
have reached, I believe, a critical mass in that electronic media 
have decisively and irreversibly changed the character of our 
symbolic environment. We are now a culture whose informa- 
tion, ideas and epistemology are given form by television, not 
by the printed word. To be sure, there are still readers and there 
are many books published, but the uses of print and reading are 
not the same as they once were; not even in schools, the last 
institutions where print was thought to be invincible. They de- 
lude themselves who believe that television and print coexist, 
for coexistence implies parity. There is no parity here. Print is 
now merely a residual epistemology, and it will remain so, 
aided to some extent by the computer, and newspapers and 
magazines that are made to look like television screens. Like the 
fish who survive a toxic river and the boatmen who sail on it, 
there still dwell among us those whose sense of things is largely 
influenced by older and clearer waters. 

The third point is that in the analogy I have drawn above, the 
river refers largely to what we call public discourse — our politi- 
cal, religious, informational and commercial forms of conversa- 
tion. I am arguing that a television-based epistemology pollutes 
public communication and its surrounding landscape, not that 
it pollutes everything. In the first place, I am constantly re- 
minded of television's value as a source of comfort and pleasure 
to the elderly, the infirm and, indeed, all people who find them- 
selves alone in motel rooms. I am also aware of television's po- 
tential for creating a theater for the masses (a subject which in 
my opinion has not been taken seriously enough). There are 
also claims that whatever power television might have to un- 

Media as Epistemology 


dermine rational discourse, its emotional power is so great that 
it could arouse sentiment against the Vietnam War or against 
more virulent forms of racism. These and other beneficial possi- 
bilities are not to be taken lightly. 

But there is still another reason why I should not like to be 
understood as making a total assault on television. Anyone who 
is even slightly familiar with the history of communications 
knows that every new technology for thinking involves a trade- 
off. It giveth and taketh away, although not quite in equal mea- 
sure. Media change does not necessarily result in equilibrium. It 
sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it is the 
other way around. We must be careful in praising or condemn- 
ing because the future may hold surprises for us. The invention 
of the printing press itself is a paradigmatic example. Typogra- 
phy fostered the modern idea of individuality, but it destroyed 
the medieval sense of community and integration. Typography 
created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form 
of expression. Typography made modern science possible but 
transformed religious sensibility into mere superstition. Typog- 
raphy assisted in the growth of the nation-state but thereby 
made patriotism into a sordid if not lethal emotion. 

Obviously, my point of view is that the four-hundred-year 
imperial dominance of typography was of far greater benefit 
than deficit. Most of our modern ideas about the uses of the 
intellect were formed by the printed word, as were our ideas 
about education, knowledge, truth and information. I will try 
to demonstrate that as typography moves to the periphery of 
our culture and television takes its place at the center, the 
seriousness, clarity and, above all, value of public discourse 
dangerously declines. On what benefits may come from other 
directions, one must keep an open mind. 

3 - 



In the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, there appears a re- 
markable quotation attributed to Michael Welfare, one of the 
founders of a religious sect known as the Dunkers and a long- 
time acquaintance of Franklin. The statement had its origins in 
Welfare's complaint to Franklin that zealots of other religious 
persuasions were spreading lies about the Dunkers, accusing 
them of abominable principles to which, in fact, they were utter 
strangers. Franklin suggested that such abuse might be dimin- 
ished if the Dunkers published the articles of their belief and the 
rules of their discipline. Welfare replied that this course of ac- 
tion had been discussed among his co-religionists but had been 
rejected. He then explained their reasoning in the following 

When we were first drawn together as a society, it had pleased 
God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, 
which we once esteemed truths, were errors, and that others, 
which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to 
time He has been pleased to afford us fanher light, and our princi- 
ples have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we 
are not sure that we are arrived at the end of this progression, and 
at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear 
that, if we should feel ourselves as if bound and confined by it, and 
perhaps be unwilling to receive further improvement, and our 
successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and 
founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed 
from. 1 


Typographic America 


Franklin describes this sentiment as a singular instance in the 
history of mankind of modesty in a sect. Modesty is certainly 
the word for it, but the statement is extraordinary for other rea- 
sons, too. We have here a criticism of the epistemology of the 
written word worthy of Plato. Moses himself might be inter- 
ested although he could hardly approve. The Dunkers came 
close here to formulating a commandment about religious dis- 
course: Thou shalt not write down thy principles, still less print 
them, lest thou shall be entrapped by them for all time. 

We may, in any case, consider it a significant loss that we 
have no record of the deliberations of the Dunkers. It would 
certainly shed light on the premise of this book, i.e., that the 
form in which ideas are expressed affects what those ideas will 
be. But more important, their deliberations were in all likeli- 
hood a singular instance in Colonial America of a distrust of the 
printed word. For the Americans among whom Franklin lived 
were as committed to the printed word as any group of people 
who have ever lived. Whatever else may be said of those immi- 
grants who came to settle in New England, it is a paramount 
fact that they and their heirs were dedicated and skillful readers 
whose religious sensibilities, political ideas and social life were 
embedded in the medium of typography. 

We know that on the Mayflower itself several books were in- 
cluded as cargo, most importantly, the Bible and Captain John 
Smith's Description of New England. (For immigrants headed 
toward a largely uncharted land, we may suppose that the latter 
book was as carefully read as the former.) We know, too, that in 
the very first days of colonization each minister was given ten 
pounds with which to start a religious library. And although 
literacy rates are notoriously difficult to assess, there is sufficient 
evidence (mostly drawn from signatures) that between 1640 
and 1700, the literacy rate for men in Massachusetts and Con- 
necticut was somewhere between 89 percent and 95 percent, 
quite probably the highest concentration of literate males to be 
found anywhere in the world at that time. 2 (The literacy rate for 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


women in those colonies is estimated to have run as high as 62 
percent in the years 1681— 1697. 5 ) 

It is to be understood that the Bible was the central reading 
matter in all households, for these people were Protestants who 
shared Luther's belief that printing was “God's highest and ex- 
tremest act of Grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is 
driven forward." Of course, the business of the Gospel may be 
driven forward in books other than the Bible, as for example in 
the famous Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640 and generally re- 
garded as America's first best seller. But it is not to be assumed 
that these people confined their reading to religious matters. 
Probate records indicate that 60 percent of the estates in Mid- 
dlesex County between the years 1654 and 1699 contained 
books, all but 8 percent of them including more than the Bible. 4 
In fact, between 1682 and 1685, Boston's leading bookseller 
imported 3,42 1 books from one English dealer, most of these 
nonreligious books. The meaning of this fact may be appreci- 
ated when one adds that these books were intended for con- 
sumption by approximately 75,000 people then living in the 
northern colonies. 5 The modem equivalent would be ten mil- 
lion books. 

Aside from the fact that the religion of these Calvinist Puri- 
tans demanded that they be literate, three other factors account 
for the colonists' preoccupation with the printed word. Since 
the male literacy rate in seventeenth-century England did not 
exceed 40 percent, we may assume, first of all, that the migrants 
to New England came from more literate areas of England or 
from more literate segments of the population, or both. 6 In 
other words, they came here as readers and were certain to be- 
lieve that reading was as important in the New World as it was 
in the Old. Second, from 1650 onward almost all New England 
towns passed laws requiring the maintenance of a “reading and 
writing" school, the large communities being required to main- 
tain a grammar school, as well. 7 In all such laws, reference is 
made to Satan, whose evil designs, it was supposed, could be 

Typographic America 


thwarted at every turn by education. But there were other rea- 
sons why education was required, as suggested by the following 
ditty, popular in the seventeenth century: 

Front public schools shall general 
knowledge flow. 

For 'tis the people's sacred 
right to know . 8 

These people, in other words, had more than the subjection 
of Satan on their minds. Beginning in the sixteenth century, a 
great epistemological shift had taken place in which knowledge 
of every kind was transferred to, and made manifest through, 
the printed page. “More than any other device,” Lewis Mum- 
ford wrote of this shift, “the printed book released people from 
the domination of the immediate and the local; . . . print made a 
greater impression than actual events. ... To exist was to exist 
in print: the rest of the world tended gradually to become more 
shadowy. Learning became book-learning." 9 In light of this, 
we may assume that the schooling of the young was understood 
by the colonists not only as a moral duty but as an intellectual 
imperative. (The England from which they came was an island 
of schools. By 1660, for example, there were 444 schools in 
England, one school approximately every twelve miles. 10 ) And 
it is clear that growth in literacy was closely connected to 
schooling. Where schooling was not required (as in Rhode Is- 
land) or weak school laws prevailed (as in New Hampshire), 
literacy rates increased more slowly than elsewhere. 

Finally, these displaced Englishmen did not need to print 
their own books or even nurture their own writers. They im- 
ported, whole, a sophisticated literary tradition from their 
Motherland. In 1736, booksellers advertised the availability of 
the Spectator, the Tatler, and Steele's Guardian. In 1738, adver- 
tisements appeared for Locke's Essay Concerning Human Under- 
standing. Pope's Homer. Swift's A Tale of a Tub and Dryden's 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


Fables . 1 1 Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University, de- 
scribed the American situation succinctly: 

Books of almost every kind, on almost every subject, are already 
written to our hands. Our situation in this respect is singular. As 
we speak the same language with the people of Great Britain, and 
have usually been at peace with that country; our commerce with 
it brings to us, regularly, not a small part of the books with which 
it is deluged. In every art, science, and path of literature, we obtain 
those, which to a great extent supply our wants. 12 

One significant implication of this situation is that no literary 
aristocracy emerged in Colonial America. Reading was not re- 
garded as an elitist activity, and printed matter was spread 
evenly among all kinds of people. A thriving, classless reading 
culture developed because, as Daniel Boorstin writes, "It was 
diffuse. Its center was everywhere because it was nowhere. 
Every man was close to what [printed matter] talked about. 
Everyone could speak the same language. It was the product of 
a busy, mobile, public society." 13 By 1772, Jacob Duche could 
write: "The poorest labourer upon the shore of the Delaware 
thinks himself entitled to deliver his sentiment in matters of re- 
ligion or politics with as much freedom as the gentleman or 
scholar. . . . Such is the prevailing taste for books of every kind, 
that almost every man is a reader.” 14 

Where such a keen taste for books prevailed among the gen- 
eral population, we need not be surprised that Thomas Paine's 
Common Sense, published on January 10, 1776, sold more than 
100,000 copies by March of the same year. 15 In 1985, a book 
would have to sell eight million copies (in two months) to 
match the proportion of the population Paine's book attracted. 
If we go beyond March, 1776, a more awesome set of figures is 
given by Howard Fast: "No one knows just how many copies 
were actually printed. The most conservative sources place the 
figure at something over 300,000 copies. Others place it just 

Typographic America 


under half a million. Taking a figure of 400,000 in a popula- 
tion of 3,000,000, a book published today would have to sell 
24,000,000 copies to do as well." 16 The only communication 
event that could produce such collective attention in today's 
America is the Superbowl. 

It is worth pausing here for a moment to say something of 
Thomas Paine, for in an important way he is a measure of the 
high and wide level of literacy that existed in his time. In par- 
ticular, I want to note that in spite of his lowly origins, no ques- 
tion has ever been raised, as it has with Shakespeare, about 
whether or not Paine was, in fact, the author of the works at- 
tributed to him. It is true that we know more of Paine's life than 
Shakespeare's (although not more of Paine's early periods), but 
it is also true that Paine had less formal schooling than Shake- 
speare, and came from the lowest laboring class before he ar- 
rived in America. In spite of these disadvantages, Paine wrote 
political philosophy and polemics the equal in lucidity and vi- 
tality (although not quantity) of Voltaire's, Rousseau's, and 
contemporary English philosophers', including Edmund Burke. 
Yet no one asked the question. How could an unschooled stay- 
maker from England's impoverished class produce such stun- 
ning prose? From time to time Paine's lack of education was 
pointed out by his enemies (and he, himself, felt inferior be- 
cause of this deficiency), but it was never doubted that such 
powers of written expression could originate from a common 

It is also worth mentioning that the full title of Paine's most 
widely read book is Common Sense. Written by an Englishman. 
The tagline is important here because, as noted earlier, Amer- 
icans did not write many books in the Colonial period, which 
Benjamin Franklin tried to explain by claiming that Americans 
were too busy doing other things. Perhaps so. But Americans 
were not too busy to make use of the printing press, even if not 
for books they themselves had written. The first printing press 
in America was established in 1638 as an adjunct of Harvard 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


University, which was two years old at the time. 17 Presses were 
established shortly thereafter in Boston and Philadelphia with- 
out resistance by the Crown, a curious fact since at this time 
presses were not permitted in Liverpool and Birmingham, 
among other English cities. 18 The earliest use of the press was 
for the printing of newsletters, mostly done on cheap paper. It 
may well be that the development of an American literature 
was retarded not by the industry of the people or the availability 
of English literature but by the scarcity of quality paper. As late 
as Revolutionary days, George Washington was forced to write 
to his generals on unsightly scraps of paper, and his dispatches 
were not enclosed in envelopes, paper being too scarce for such 
use. 19 

Yet by the late seventeenth century, there was a beginning to 
a native literature that turned out to have as much to do with 
the typographic bias of American culture as books. I refer, of 
course, to the newspaper, at which Americans first tried their 
hand on September 25, 1690, in Boston, when Benjamin Harris 
printed the first edition of a three-page paper he called Publick 
Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick. Before he came to Amer- 
ica, Harris had played a role in “exposing” a nonexistent con- 
spiracy of Catholics to slaughter Protestants and bum London. 
His London newspaper, Domestick Intelligence, revealed the 
"Popish plot.” with the result that Catholics were harshly per- 
secuted. 20 Harris, no stranger to mendacity, indicated in his 
prospectus for Publick Occurrences that a newspaper was neces- 
sary to combat the spirit of lying which then prevailed in Boston 
and, I am told, still does. He concluded his prospectus with the 
following sentence: "It is suppos'd that none will dislike this 
Proposal but such as intend to be guilty of so villainous a 
crime." Harris was right about who would dislike his proposal. 
The second issue of Publick Occurrences never appeared. The 
Governor and Council suppressed it, complaining that Harris 
had printed "reflections of a very high nature," 21 by which 
they meant that they had no intention of admitting any impedi- 

Typographic America 37 

merits to whatever villainy they wished to pursue. Thus, in the 
New World began the struggle for freedom of information 
which, in the Old, had begun a century before. 

Harris' abortive effort inspired other attempts at newspaper 
publication: for example, the Boston News-Letter, published in 
1704, generally regarded as the first continuously published 
American newspaper. This was followed by the Boston Gazette 
(in 1719) and the New-England Courant (in 1721), whose editor, 
James Franklin, was the older brother of Benjamin. By 1730, 
there were seven newspapers published regularly in four colo- 
nies, and by 1800 there were more than 180. In 1770, the New 
York Gazette congratulated itself and other papers by writing (in 

Tis truth (with deference to the college) 

Newspapers are the spring of Knowledge. 

The general source throughout the nation. 

Of every modem conversation . 22 

At the end of the eighteenth century, the Reverend Samuel Mil- 
ler boasted that the United States had more than two-thirds the 
number of newspapers available in England, and yet had only 
half the population of England. 23 

In 1786, Benjamin Franklin observed that Americans were so 
busy reading newspapers and pamphlets that they scarcely had 
time for books. (One book they apparently always had time for 
was Noah Webster's American Spelling Book, for it sold more 
than 24 million copies between 1783 and 1843.) 24 Franklin's 
reference to pamphlets ought not to go unnoticed. The prolifer- 
ation of newspapers in all the Colonies was accompanied by the 
rapid diffusion of pamphlets and broadsides. Alexis de Tocque- 
ville took note of this fact in his Democracy in America, published 
in 1835: “In America," he wrote, “parties do not write books to 
combat each other's opinions, but pamphlets, which are circu- 
lated for a day with incredible rapidity and then expire." 25 And 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


he referred to both newspapers and pamphlets when he ob- 
served, "the invention of firearms equalized the vassal and the 
noble on the field of battle; the art of printing opened the same 
resources to the minds of all classes; the post brought knowl- 
edge alike to the door of the cottage and to the gate of the 
palace." 26 

At the time Tocqueville was making his observations of 
America, printing had already spread to all the regions of the 
country. The South had lagged behind the North not only in the 
formation of schools (almost all of which were private rather 
than public) but in its uses of the printing press. Virginia, for 
example, did not get its first regularly published newspaper, the 
Virginia Gazette, until 1736. But toward the end of the eigh- 
teenth century, the movement of ideas via the printed word was 
relatively rapid, and something approximating a national con- 
versation emerged. For example, the Federalist Papers, an out- 
pouring of eighty-five essays written by Alexander Hamilton, 
James Madison, and John Jay (all under the name of Publius) 
originally appeared in a New York newspaper during 1787 and 
1788 but were read almost as widely in the South as the North. 

As America moved into the nineteenth century, it did so as a 
fully print-based culture in all of its regions. Between 1825 and 
1850, the number of subscription libraries trebled. 27 What were 
called "mechanics' and apprentices' libraries" — that is, libraries 
intended for the working class — also emerged as a force for lit- 
eracy. In 1829, the New York Apprentices' Library housed ten 
thousand volumes, of which 1 ,600 apprentices drew books. By 
1857, the same library served three-quarters of a million peo- 
ple. 28 Aided by Congress' lowering of the postal rates in 1851, 
the penny newspaper, the periodical, the Sunday school tract, 
and the cheaply bound book were abundantly available. Be- 
tween 1 836 and 1 890, 1 07 million copies of the McGuffey Reader 
were distributed to the schools. 29 And although the reading of 
novels was not considered an altogether reputable use of time, 
Americans devoured them. Of Walter Scott's novels, published 

Typographic America 


between 1814 and 1832, Samuel Goodrich wrote: “The ap- 
pearance of a new novel from his pen caused a greater sensation 
in the United States than did some of the battles of Napoleon. 

. . . Everybody read these works; everybody — the refined and 
the simple." 50 Publishers were so anxious to make prospective 
best sellers available, they would sometimes dispatch messen- 
gers to incoming packet boats and “within a single day set up, 
printed and bound in paper covers the most recent novel 
of Bulwer or Dickens." 31 There being no international copy- 
right laws, “pirated" editions abounded, with no complaint 
from the public, or much from authors, who were lionized. 
When Charles Dickens visited America in 1842, his reception 
equaled the adulation we offer today to television stars, quarter- 
backs, and Michael Jackson. “I can give you no conception of 
my welcome," Dickens wrote to a friend. "There never was a 
King or Emperor upon earth so cheered and followed by the 
crowds, and entertained at splendid balls and dinners and 
waited upon by public bodies of all kinds. ... If 1 go out in a 
carriage, the crowd surrounds it and escorts me home; if I go to 
the theater, the whole house . . . rises as one man and the tim- 
bers ring again." 32 A native daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 
was not offered the same kind of adoring attention — and, of 
course, in the South, had her carriage been surrounded, it 
would not have been for the purpose of escorting her home — 
but her Uncle Tom's Cabin sold 305,000 copies in its first year, 
the equivalent of four million in today's America. 

Alexis de Tocqueville was not the only foreign visitor to be 
impressed by the Americans' immersion in printed matter. Dur- 
ing the nineteenth century, scores of Englishmen came to 
America to see for themselves what had become of the Colo- 
nies. All were impressed with the high level of literacy and in 
particular its extension to all classes. 33 

In addition, they were astounded by the near universality of 
lecture halls in which stylized oral performance provided a con- 
tinuous reinforcement of the print tradition. Many of these lec- 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


ture halls originated as a result of the Lyceum Movement, a 
form of adult education. Usually associated with the efforts of 
Josiah Holbrook, a New England farmer, the Lyceum Move- 
ment had as its purpose the diffusion of knowledge, the pro- 
motion of common schools, the creation of libraries and, 
especially, the establishment of lecture halls. By 1835, there 
were more than three thousand Lyceums in fifteen states. 34 
Most of these were located east of the Alleghenies, but by 1 840, 
they were to be found at the edges of the frontier, as far west as 
Iowa and Minnesota. Alfred Bunn, an Englishman on an exten- 
sive tour through America, reported in 1853 that "practically 
every village had its lecture hall." 35 He added: "It is a matter of 
wonderment ... to witness the youthful workmen, the over- 
tired artisan, the worn-out factory girl . . . rushing . . . after the 
toil of the day is over, into the hot atmosphere of a crowded 
lecture room." 36 Bunn's countryman J. F. W. Johnston at- 
tended lectures at this time at the Smithsonian Institution and 
"found the lecture halls jammed with capacity audiences of 
1200 and 1 500 people." 37 Among the lecturers these audiences 
could hear were the leading intellectuals, writers and humorists 
(who were also writers) of their time, including Henry Ward 
Beecher, Horace Greeley, Louis Agassiz and Ralph Waldo Em- 
erson (whose fee for a lecture was fifty dollars). 38 In his auto- 
biography, Mark Twain devotes two chapters to his experiences 
as a lecturer on the Lyceum circuit. "I began as a lecturer in 
1866 in California and Nevada," he wrote. "(I] lectured in New 
York once and in the Mississippi Valley a few times; in 1868 [I] 
made the whole Western circuit; and in the two or three follow- 
ing seasons added the Eastern circuit to my route." 39 Appar- 
ently, Emerson was underpaid since Twain remarks that some 
lecturers charged as much as $250 when they spoke in towns 
and $400 when they spoke in cities (which is almost as much, 
in today's terms, as the going price for a lecture by a retired 
television newscaster) . 

The point all this is leading to is that from its beginning until 

Typographic America 


well into the nineteenth century, America was as dominated by 
the printed word and an oratory based on the printed word as 
any society we know of. This situation was only in part a legacy 
of the Protestant tradition. As Richard Hofstadter reminds us, 
America was founded by intellectuals, a rare occurrence in the 
history of modern nations. “The Founding Fathers,” he writes, 
“were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them 
apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, 
politics, and law to solve the exigent problems of their time ." 40 
A society shaped by such men does not easily move in contrary 
directions. We might even say that America was founded by 
intellectuals, from which it has taken us two centuries and a 
communications revolution to recover. Hofstadter has written 
convincingly of our efforts to "recover," that is to say, of the 
anti-intellectual strain in American public life, but he concedes 
that his focus distorts the general picture. It is akin to writing a 
history of American business by concentrating on the history of 
bankruptcies . 41 

The influence of the printed word in every arena of public 
discourse was insistent and powerful not merely because of the 
quantity of printed matter but because of its monopoly. This 
point cannot be stressed enough, especially for those who are 
reluctant to acknowledge profound differences in the media en- 
vironments of then and now. One sometimes hears it said, for 
example, that there is more printed matter available today than 
ever before, which is undoubtedly true. But from the seven- 
teenth century to the late nineteenth century, printed matter 
was virtually all that was available. There were no movies to 
see, radio to hear, photographic displays to look at, records to 
play. There was no television. Public business was channeled 
into and expressed through print, which became the model, the 
metaphor and the measure of all discourse. The resonances of 
the lineal, analytical structure of print, and in particular, of ex- 
pository prose, could be fell everywhere. For example, in how 
people talked. Tocqueville remarks on this in Democracy in 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


America. "An American," he wrote, "cannot converse, but he 
can discuss, and his talk falls into a dissertation. He speaks to 
you as if he was addressing a meeting; and if he should chance 
to become vyarm in the discussion, he will say 'Gentlemen' to 
the person with whom he is conversing." 42 This odd practice is 
less a reflection of an American's obstinacy than of his modeling 
his conversational style on the structure of the printed word. 
Since the printed word is impersonal and is addressed to an 
invisible audience, what Tocqueville is describing here is a kind 
of printed orality, which was observable in diverse forms of oral 
discourse. On the pulpit, for example, sermons were usually 
written speeches delivered in a stately, impersonal tone consist- 
ing "largely of an impassioned, coldly analytical cataloguing of 
the attributes of the Deity as revealed to man through Nature 
and Nature's Laws." 45 And even when The Great Awakening 
came — a revivalist movement that challenged the analytical, 
dispassionate spirit of Deism — its highly emotional preachers 
used an oratory that could be transformed easily to the printed 
page. The most charismatic of these men was the Reverend 
George Whitefield. who beginning in 1739 preached all over 
America to large crowds. In Philadelphia, he addressed an au- 
dience of ten thousand people, whom he deeply stirred and 
alarmed by assuring them of eternal hellfire if they refused to 
accept Christ. Benjamin Franklin witnessed one of Whitefield's 
performances and responded by offering to become his pub- 
lisher. In due time, Whitefield's journals and sermons were 
published by B. Franklin of Philadelphia. 44 

But obviously I do not mean to say that print merely influ- 
enced the form of public discourse. That does not say much 
unless one connects it to the more important idea that form will 
determine the nature of content. For those readers who may 
believe that this idea is too "McLuhanesque" for their taste, I 
offer Karl Marx from The German Ideology. "Is the Iliad possi- 
ble," he asks rhetorically, "when the printing press and even 
printing machines exist? Is it not inevitable that with the emer- 

Typographic America 


gence of the press, the singing and the telling and the muse 
cease; that is, the conditions necessary for epic poetry disap- 
pear ?" 45 Marx understood well that the press was not merely a 
machine but a structure for discourse, which both rules out and 
insists upon certain kinds of content and, inevitably, a certain 
kind of audience. He did not, himself, fully explore the matter, 
and others have taken up the task. I too must try my hand at 
it — to explore how the press worked as a metaphor and an 
epistemology to create a serious and rational public conversa- 
tion, from which we have now been so dramatically separated. 

4 * 

The Typographic 

The first of the seven famous debates between Abraham Lincoln 
and Stephen A. Douglas took place on August 21, 1858, in Ot- 
towa, Illinois. Their arrangement provided that Douglas would 
speak first, for one hour; Lincoln would take an hour and a half 
to reply; Douglas, a half hour to rebut Lincoln's reply. This de- 
bate was considerably shorter than those to which the two men 
were accustomed. In fact, they had tangled several times before, 
and all of their encounters had been much lengthier and more 
exhausting. For example, on October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illi- 
nois, Douglas delivered a three-hour address to which Lincoln, 
by agreement, was to respond. When Lincoln's turn came, he 
reminded the audience that it was already 5 p.m., that he would 
probably require as much time as Douglas and that Douglas was 
still scheduled for a rebuttal. He proposed, therefore, that the 
audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four 
more hours of talk. 1 The audience amiably agreed, and matters 
proceeded as Lincoln had outlined. 

What kind of audience was this? Who were these people who 
could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of 
oratory? It should be noted, by the way, that Lincoln and Doug- 
las were not presidential candidates; at the time of their en- 
counter in Peoria they were not even candidates for the United 
States Senate. But their audiences were not especially con- 
cerned with their official status. These were people who re- 
garded such events as essential to their political education, who 
took them to be an integral part of their social lives, and who 


The Typographic Mind 


were quite accustomed to extended oratorical performances. 
Typically at county or state fairs, programs included many 
speakers, most of whom were allotted three hours for their ar- 
guments. And since it was preferred that speakers not go un- 
answered, their opponents were allotted an equal length of 
time. (One might add that the speakers were not always men. 
At one fair lasting several days in Springfield, "Each evening a 
woman [lectured] in the courtroom on 'Woman's Influence in 
the Great Progressive Movements of the Day.' " 2 ) 

Moreover, these people did not rely on fairs or special events 
to get their fill of oratory. The tradition of the "stump" speaker 
was widely practiced, especially in the western states. By the 
stump of a felled tree or some equivalent open space, a speaker 
would gather an audience, and, as the saying had it, "take the 
stump" for two or three hours. Although audiences were 
mostly respectful and attentive, they were not quiet or unemo- 
tional. Throughout the Lincoln-Douglas debates, for example, 
people shouted encouragement to the speakers ("You tell 'em, 
Abel") or voiced terse expressions of scorn ("Answer that one, 
if you can"). Applause was frequent, usually reserved for a hu- 
morous or elegant phrase or a cogent point. At the first debate 
in Ottowa, Douglas responded to lengthy applause with a re- 
markable and revealing statement. "My friends," he said, "si- 
lence will be more acceptable to me in the discussion of these 
questions than applause. I desire to address myself to your judg- 
ment, your understanding, and your consciences, and not to 
your passions or your enthusiasms." * As to the conscience of 
the audience, or even its judgment, it is difficult to say very 
much. But as to its understanding, a great deal can be assumed. 

For one thing, its attention span would obviously have been 
extraordinary by current standards. Is there any audience of 
Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? or 
five? or three? Especially without pictures of any kind? Second, 
these audiences must have had an equally extraordinary capac- 
ity to comprehend lengthy and complex sentences aurally. In 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 46 

Douglas' Ottowa speech he included in his one-hour address 
three long, legally phrased resolutions of the Abolition plat- 
form. Lincoln, in his reply, read even longer passages from a 
published speech he had delivered on a previous occasion. For 
all of Lincoln's celebrated economy of style, his sentence struc- 
ture in the debates was intricate and subtle, as was Douglas'. In 
the second debate, at Freeport, Illinois, Lincoln rose to answer 
Douglas in the following words: 

It will readily occur to you that I cannot, in half an hour, notice all 
the things that so able a man as Judge Douglas can say in an hour 
and a half; and I hope, therefore, if there be anything that he has 
said upon which you would like to hear something from me, but 
which I omit to comment upon, you will bear in mind that it 
would be expecting an impossibility for me to cover his whole 
ground. 4 

It is hard to imagine the present occupant of the White House 
being capable of constructing such clauses in similar circum- 
stances. And if he were, he would surely do so at the risk of 
burdening the comprehension or concentration of his audience. 
People of a television culture need "plain language" both au- 
rally and visually, and will even go so far as to require it in some 
circumstances by law. The Gettysburg Address would probably 
have been largely incomprehensible to a 1985 audience. 

The Lincoln- Douglas audience apparently had a considerable 
grasp of the issues being debated, including knowledge of his- 
torical events and complex political matters. At Ottowa, Doug- 
las put seven interrogatives to Lincoln, all of which would have 
been rhetorically pointless unless the audience was familiar 
with the Dred Scott decision, the quarrel between Douglas and 
President Buchanan, the disaffection of some Democrats, the 
Abolition platform, and Lincoln's famous "House divided" 
speech at Cooper Union. Further, in answering Douglas' ques- 
tions in a later debate, Lincoln made a subtle distinction be- 

The Typographic Mind 


tween what he was, or was not, "pledged” to uphold and what 
he actually believed, which he surely would not have attempted 
unless he assumed the audience could grasp his point. Finally, 
while both speakers employed some of the more simple- 
minded weapons of argumentative language (e.g., name-calling 
and bombastic generalities), they consistently drew upon more 
complex rhetorical resources — sarcasm, irony, paradox, elabo- 
rated metaphors, fine distinctions and the exposure of contra- 
diction, none of which would have advanced their respective 
causes unless the audience was fully aware of the means being 

It would be false, however, to give the impression that these 
1858 audiences were models of intellectual propriety. All of the 
Lincoln-Douglas debates were conducted amid a carnival-like 
atmosphere. Bands played (although not during the debates), 
hawkers sold their wares, children romped, liquor was avail- 
able. These were important social events as well as rhetorical 
performances, but this did not trivialize them. As I have indi- 
cated, these audiences were made up of people whose intellec- 
tual lives and public business were fully integrated into their 
social world. As Winthrop Hudson has pointed out, even Meth- 
odist camp meetings combined picnics with opportunities to lis- 
ten to oratory. 5 Indeed, most of the camp grounds originally 
established for religious inspiration — Chautauqua, New York; 
Ocean Grove, New Jersey; Bayview, Michigan; Junaluska, 
North Carolina — were eventually transformed into conference 
centers, serving educational and intellectual functions. In other 
words, the use of language as a means of complex argument 
was an important, pleasurable and common form of discourse 
in almost every public arena. 

To understand the audience to whom Lincoln and Douglas 
directed their memorable language, we must remember that 
these people were the grandsons and granddaughters of the En- 
lightenment (American version). They were the progeny of 
Franklin, Jefferson, Madison and Tom Paine, the inheritors of 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


the Empire of Reason, as Henry Steele Commager has called 
eighteenth-century America. It is true that among their number 
were frontiersmen, some of whom were barely literate, and im- 
migrants to whom English was still strange. It is also true that 
by 1858, the photograph and telegraph had been invented, the 
advance guard of a new epistemology that would put an end to 
the Empire of Reason. But this would not become evident until 
the twentieth century. At the time of the Lincoln-Douglas de- 
bates, America was in the middle years of its most glorious liter- 
ary outpouring. In 1858, Edwin Markham was six years old; 
Mark Twain was twenty-three; Emily Dickinson, twenty-eight; 
Whitman and James Russell Lowell, thirty-nine; Thoreau, 
forty-one; Melville, forty-five; Whittier and Longfellow, fifty- 
one; Hawthorne and Emerson, fifty-four and fifty-five; Poe had 
died nine years before. 

I choose the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a starting point for 
this chapter not only because they were the preeminent exam- 
ple of political discourse in the mid -nineteenth century but also 
because they illustrate the power of typography to control the 
character of that discourse. Both the speakers and their audi- 
ence were habituated to a kind of oratory that may be described 
as literary. For all of the hoopla and socializing surrounding the 
event, the speakers had little to offer, and audiences little to 
expect, but language. And the language that was offered was 
clearly modeled on the style of the written word. To anyone 
who has read what Lincoln and Douglas said, this is obvious 
from beginning to end. The debates opened, in fact, with Doug- 
las making the following introduction, highly characteristic of 
everything that was said afterward: 

Ladies and Gentlemen: I appear before you today for the purpose 
of discussing the leading political topics which now agitate the 
public mind. By an arrangement between Mr. Lincoln and myself, 
we are present here today for the purpose of having a joint discus- 
sion, as the representatives of the two great political parties of the 

The Typographic Mind 


State and Union, upon the principles in issue between those par- 
ties, and this vast concourse of people shows the deep feeling 
which pervades the public mind in regard to the questions divid- 
ing us . 6 

This language is pure print. That the occasion required it to be 
spoken aloud cannot obscure that fact. And that the audience 
was able to process it through the ear is remarkable only to 
people whose culture no longer resonates powerfully with the 
printed word. Not only did Lincoln and Douglas write all their 
speeches in advance, but they also planned their rebuttals in 
writing. Even the spontaneous interactions between the speak- 
ers were expressed in a sentence structure, sentence length and 
rhetorical organization which took their form from writing. To 
be sure, there were elements of pure orality in their presenta- 
tions. After all, neither speaker was indifferent to the moods of 
the audiences. Nonetheless, the resonance of typography was 
ever-present. Here was argument and counterargument, claim 
and counterclaim, criticism of relevant texts, the most careful 
scrutiny of the previously uttered sentences of one's opponent. 
In short, the Lincoln-Douglas debates may be described as ex- 
pository prose lifted whole from the printed page. That is the 
meaning of Douglas' reproach to the audience. He claimed that 
his appeal was to understanding and not to passion, as if the 
audience were to be silent, reflective readers, and his language 
the text which they must ponder. Which brings us, of course, to 
the questions. What are the implications for public discourse of 
a written, or typographic, metaphor? What is the character of 
its content? What does it demand of the public? What uses 
of the mind does it favor? 

One must begin, I think, by pointing to the obvious fact that 
the written word, and an oratory based upon it, has a content: a 
semantic, paraphrasable, propositional content. This may 
sound odd, but since I shall be arguing soon enough that much 
of our discourse today has only a marginal propositional con- 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


lent, I must stress the point here. Whenever language is the 
principal medium of communication — especially language con- 
trolled by the rigors of print — an idea, a fact, a claim is the 
inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the 
claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language 
is the instrument guiding one's thought. Though one may ac- 
complish it from lime to time, it is very hard to say nothing 
when employing a written English sentence. What else is ex- 
position good for? Words have very little to recommend them 
except as carriers of meaning. The shapes of written words are 
not especially interesting to look at. Even the sounds of sen- 
tences of spoken words are rarely engaging except when com- 
posed by those with extraordinary poetic gifts. If a sentence 
refuses to issue forth a fact, a request, a question, an assertion, 
an explanation, it is nonsense, a mere grammatical shell. As a 
consequence a language-centered discourse such as was char- 
acteristic of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America tends 
to be both content-laden and serious, all the more so when it 
takes its form from print. 

It is serious because meaning demands to be understood. A 
written sentence calls upon its author to say something, upon 
its reader to know the import of what is said. And when an 
author and reader are struggling with semantic meaning, they 
are engaged in the most serious challenge to the intellect. This is 
especially the case with the act of reading, for authors are not 
always trustworthy. They lie, they become confused, they over- 
generalize, they abuse logic and, sometimes, common sense. 
The reader must come armed, in a serious state of intellectual 
readiness. This is not easy because he comes to the text alone. In 
reading, one's responses are isolated, one's intellect thrown 
back on its own resources. To be confronted by the cold abstrac- 
tions of printed sentences is to look upon language bare, with- 
out the assistance of either beauty or community. Thus, reading 
is by its nature a serious business. It is also, of course, an essen- 
tially rational activity. 

The Typographic Mind 


From Erasmus in the sixteenth century to Elizabeth Eisen- 
stein in the twentieth, almost every scholar who has grappled 
with the question of what reading does to one's habits of mind 
has concluded that the process encourages rationality; that the 
sequential, propositional character of the written word fosters 
what Walter Ong calls the “analytic management of knowl- 
edge.” To engage the written word means to follow a line of 
thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, 
inference- making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, con- 
fusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and 
common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and 
contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. To 
accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the 
words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated 
and impersonal text. That is why a good reader does not cheer 
an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired para- 
graph. Analytic thought is too busy for that, and too detached. 

I do not mean to imply that prior to the written word analytic 
thought was not possible. I am referring here not to the poten- 
tialities of the individual mind but to the predispositions of a 
cultural mind-set. In a culture dominated by print, public dis- 
course tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrange- 
ment of facts and ideas. The public for whom it is intended is 
generally competent to manage such discourse. In a print cul- 
ture, writers make mistakes when they lie, contradict them- 
selves, fail to support their generalizations, try to enforce 
illogical connections. In a print culture, readers make mistakes 
when they don't notice, or even worse, don't care. 

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, print put forward 
a definition of intelligence that gave priority to the objective, 
rational use of the mind and at the same time encouraged forms 
of public discourse with serious, logically ordered content. It is 
no accident that the Age of Reason was coexistent with the 
growth of a print culture, first in Europe and then in America. 
The spread of typography kindled the hope that the world and 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


its manifold mysteries could at least be comprehended, pre- 
dicted, controlled. It is in the eighteenth century that sci- 
ence — the preeminent example of the analytic management of 
knowledge — begins its refashioning of the world. It is in the 
eighteenth century that capitalism is demonstrated to be a ra- 
tional and liberal system of economic life, that religious super- 
stition comes under furious attack, that the divine right of kings 
is shown to be a mere prejudice, that the idea of continuous 
progress takes hold, and that the necessity of universal literacy 
through education becomes apparent. 

Perhaps the most optimistic expression of everything that ty- 
pography implied is contained in the following paragraph from 
John Stuart Mill's autobiography: 

So complete was my father's reliance on the influence of man- 
kind, wherever [literacy] is allowed to reach them, that he felt as if 
all would be gained if the whole population were taught to read, if 
all sorts of opinions were allowed to be addressed to them by word 
and in writing, and if, by means of the suffrage, they could nomi- 
nate a legislature to give effect to the opinion they adopted . 7 

This was, of course, a hope never quite realized. At no point 
in the history of England or America (or anyplace else) has the 
dominion of reason been so total as the elder Mill imagined 
typography would allow. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to dem- 
onstrate that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Amer- 
ican public discourse, being rooted in the bias of the printed 
word, was serious, inclined toward rational argument and pre- 
sentation, and, therefore, made up of meaningful content. 

Let us take religious discourse as an illustration of this point. 
In the eighteenth century believers were as much influenced by 
the rationalist tradition as anyone else. The New World offered 
freedom of religion to all, which implied that no force other 
than reason itself could be employed to bring light to the un- 
believer. "Here Deism will have its full chance," said Ezra Stiles 

The Typographic Mind 


in one of his famous sermons in 1783. "Nor need libertines 
[any] more to complain of being overcome by any weapons but 
the gentle, the powerful ones of argument and truth." 8 

Leaving aside the libertines, we know that the Deists were 
certainly given their full chance. It is quite probable, in fact, that 
the first four presidents of the United States were Deists. Jeffer- 
son, certainly, did not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ and, 
while he was President, wrote a version of the Four Gospels 
from which he removed all references to "fantastic" events, re- 
taining only the ethical content of Jesus' teaching. Legend has it 
that when Jefferson was elected President, old women hid their 
Bibles and shed tears. What they might have done had Tom 
Paine become President or been offered some high post in the 
government is hard to imagine. In The Age of Reason, Paine at- 
tacked the Bible and all subsequent Christian theology. Of Jesus 
Christ, Paine allowed that he was a virtuous and amiable man 
but charged that the stories of his divinity were absurd and pro- 
fane, which, in the way of the rationalist, he tried to prove by a 
close textual analysis of the Bible. "All national institutions of 
churches," he wrote, "whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, 
appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify 
and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit." 9 Be- 
cause of The Age of Reason. Paine lost his standing among the 
pantheon of Founding Fathers (and to this day is treated ambig- 
uously in American history textbooks). But Ezra Stiles did not 
say that libertines and Deists would be loved: only that with rea- 
son as their jury, they would have their say in an open court. As 
indeed they did. Assisted by the initial enthusiasms evoked by 
the French Revolution, the Deist attack on churches as enemies 
of progress and on religious superstition as enemy of rational- 
ity became a popular movement. 10 The churches fought back, 
of course, and when Deism ceased to attract interest, they 
fought among themselves. Toward the mid-eighteenth century, 
Theodore Frelinghuysen and William Tennent led a revivalist 
movement among Presbyterians. They were followed by the 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


three great figures associated with religious "awakenings” in 
America — Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and, later in 
the nineteenth century, Charles Finney. 

These men were spectacularly successful preachers, whose 
appeal reached regions of consciousness far beyond where rea- 
son rules. Of Whitefield, it was said that by merely pronouncing 
the word "Mesopotamia," he evoked tears in his audience. Per- 
haps that is why Henry Coswell remarked in 1839 that "reli- 
gious mania is said to be the prevailing form of insanity in the 
United States." 1 1 Yet it is essential to bear in mind that quarrels 
over doctrine between the revivalist movements of the eigh- 
teenth and nineteenth centuries and the established churches 
fiercely opposed to them were argued in pamphlets and books 
in largely rational, logically ordered language. It would be a 
serious mistake to think of Billy Graham or any other television 
revivalist as a latter-day Jonathan Edwards or Charles Finney. 
Edwards was one of the most brilliant and creative minds ever 
produced by America. His contribution to aesthetic theory was 
almost as important as his contribution to theology. His inter- 
ests were mostly academic; he spent long hours each day in his 
study. He did not speak to his audiences extemporaneously. He 
read his sermons, which were tightly knit and closely reasoned 
expositions of theological doctrine. 12 Audiences may have been 
moved emotionally by Edwards' language, but they were, first 
and foremost, required to understand it. Indeed Edwards' fame 
was largely a result of a book. Faithful Narrative of the Surprising 
Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in North- 
ampton, published in 1737. A later book, A Treatise Concern- 
ing Religious Affections, published in 1746, is considered to be 
among the most remarkable psychological studies ever pro- 
duced in America. 

Unlike the principal figures in today's "great awakening" — 
Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggarl, et al. — yester- 
day's leaders of revivalist movements in America were men of 
learning, faith in reason, and generous expository gifts. Their 

The Typographic Mind 


disputes with the religious establishments were as much about 
theology and the nature of consciousness as they were about 
religious inspiration. Finney, for example, was no "backcountry 
rustic,” as he was sometimes characterized by his doctrinal op- 
ponents. 1 3 He had been trained as a lawyer, wrote an important 
book on systematic theology, and ended his career as a pro- 
fessor at and then president of Oberlin College. 

The doctrinal disputes among religionists not only were ar- 
gued in carefully drawn exposition in the eighteenth century, 
but in the nineteenth century were settled by the extraordinary 
expedient of founding colleges. It is sometimes forgotten that 
the churches in America laid the foundation of our system of 
higher education. Harvard, of course, was established early — in 
1636 — for the purpose of providing learned ministers to the 
Congregational Church. And, sixty-five years later, when Con- 
gfegationalists quarreled among themselves over doctrine, Yale 
College was founded to correct the lax influences of Harvard 
(and, to this day, claims it has the same burden). The strong 
intellectual strain of the Congregationalists was matched by 
other denominations, certainly in their passion for starting col- 
leges. The Presbyterians founded, among other schools, the 
University of Tennessee in 1784, Washington and Jefferson 
in 1802 and Lafayette in 1826. The Baptists founded, among 
others, Colgate (1817), George Washington (1821), Furman 
(1826), Denison (1832) and Wake Forest (1834). The Episco- 
palians founded Hobart (1822), Trinity (1823) and Kenyon 
(1824). The Methodists founded eight colleges between 1830 
and 1851, including Wesleyan, Emory, and Depauw. In addi- 
tion to Harvard and Yale, the Congregationalists founded Wil- 
liams (1793), Middlebury (1800), Amherst (1821) and Oberlin 

If this preoccupation with literacy and learning be a "form of 
insanity," as Coswell said of religious life in America, then let 
there be more of it. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, 
religious thought and institutions in America were dominated 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


by an austere, learned, and intellectual form of discourse that is 
largely absent from religious life today. No clearer example of 
the difference between earlier and modern forms of public dis- 
course can be found than in the contrast between the theologi- 
cal arguments of Jonathan Edwards and those of, say, Jerry 
Falwell, or Billy Graham, or Oral Roberts. The formidable con- 
tent to Edwards' theology must inevitably engage the intellect; 
if there is such a content to the theology of the television evan- 
gelicals, they have not yet made it known. 

The differences between the character of discourse in a print- 
based culture and the character of discourse in a television- 
based culture are also evident if one looks at the legal system. 

In a print-based culture, lawyers tended to be well educated, 
devoted to reason, and capable of impressive expositional argu- 
ment. It is a matter frequently overlooked in histories of Amer- 
ica that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the legal 
profession represented "a sort of privileged body in the scale of 
intellect,” as Tocqueville remarked. Folk heroes were made of 
some of those lawyers, like Sergeant Prentiss of Alabama, or 
"Honest” Abe Lincoln of Illinois, whose craftiness in manip- 
ulating juries was highly theatrical, not unlike television's 
version of a trial lawyer. But the great figures of American juris- 
prudence — John Marshall, Joseph Story, James Kent, David 
Hoffman, William Wirt and Daniel Webster — were models of 
intellectual elegance and devotion to rationality and scholar- 
ship. They believed that democracy, for all of its obvious virtues, 
posed the danger of releasing an undisciplined individualism. 
Their aspiration was to save civilization in America by "creating 
a rationality for the law." 14 As a consequence of this exalted 
view, they believed that law must not be merely a learned pro- 
fession but a liberal one. The famous law professor Job Tyson 
argued that a lawyer must be familiar with the works of Seneca, 
Cicero, and Plato. 15 George Sharswood, perhaps envisioning 
the degraded state of legal education in the twentieth century, 
remarked in 1854 that to read law exclusively will damage the 

The Typographic Mind 


mind, "shackle it to the technicalities with which it has become 
so familiar, and disable it from taking enlarged and comprehen- 
sive views even of topics falling within its compass." 16 

The insistence on a liberal, rational and articulate legal mind 
was reinforced by the fact that America had a written constitu- 
tion, as did all of its component states, and that law did not 
grow by chance but was explicitly formulated. A lawyer needed 
to be a writing and reading man par excellence, for reason was 
the principal authority upon which legal questions were to be 
decided. John Marshall was, of course, the great "paragon of 
reason, as vivid a symbol to the American imagination as Natty 
Bumppo." 17 He was the preeminent example of Typographic 
Man — detached, analytical, devoted to logic, abhorring contra- 
diction. It was said of him that he never used analogy as a prin- 
cipal support of his arguments. Rather, he introduced most of 
his decisions with the phrase "It is admitted. . . ." Once one 
admitted his premises, one was usually forced to accept his con- 

To an extent difficult to imagine today, earlier Americans 
were familiar not only with the great legal issues of their time 
but even with the language famous lawyers had used to argue 
their cases. This was especially true of Daniel Webster, and it 
was only natural that Stephen Vincent Ben£t in his famous 
short story would have chosen Daniel Webster to contend with 
the Devil. How could the Devil triumph over a man whose lan- 
guage, described by Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, had 
the following characteristics? 

. . . his clearness and downright simplicity of statement, his vast 
comprehensiveness of topics, his fertility in illustrations drawn 
from practical sources; his keen analysis, and suggestion of diffi- 
culties; his power of disentangling a complicated proposition, and 
resolving it in elements so plain as to reach the most common 
minds; his vigor in generalizations, planting his own arguments 
behind the whole battery of his opponents; his wariness and cau- 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


lion not to betray himself by heat into untenable positions, or to 

spread his forces over useless ground. 18 

I quote this in full because it is the best nineteenth-century 
description I know of the character of discourse expected of one 
whose mind is formed by the printed word. It is exactly the 
ideal and model James Mill had in mind in prophesying about 
the wonders of typography. And if the model was somewhat 
unreachable, it stood nonetheless as an ideal to which every 
lawyer aspired. 

Such an ideal went far beyond the legal profession or the 
ministry in its influence. Even in the everyday world of com- 
merce, the resonances of rational, typographic discourse were 
to be found. If we may take advertising to be the voice of com- 
merce, then its history tells very clearly that in the eighteenth 
and nineteenth centuries those with products to sell took their 
customers to be not unlike Daniel Webster: they assumed that 
potential buyers were literate, rational, analytical. Indeed, the 
history of newspaper advertising in America may be considered, 
all by itself, as a metaphor of the descent of the typographic 
mind, beginning, as it does, with reason, and ending, as it does, 
with entertainment. In Frank Presbrey's classic study The History 
and Development of Advertising, he discusses the decline of typog- 
raphy, dating its demise in the late 1860's and early 1870's. He 
refers to the period before then as the “dark ages" of typograph- 
ical display. 19 The dark ages to which he refers began in 1704 
when the first paid advertisements appeared in an American 
newspaper. The Boston News-Letter. These were three in number, 
occupying altogether four inches of single-column space. One 
of them offered a reward for the capture of a thief; another of- 
fered a reward for the return of an anvil that was “taken up" by 
some unknown party. The third actually offered something for 
sale, and, in fact, is not unlike real estate advertisements one 
might see in today's New York Times: 

The Typographic Mind 


At Oysterbay, on Long Island in the Province of N. York. There is a 
very good Fulling-Mill, to be Let or Sold, as also a Plantation, 
having on it a large new Brick house, and another good house by 
it for a Kitchen &■ workhouse, with a Barn, Stable &c. a young 
Orchard and 20 acres clear land. The Mill is to be Let with or 
without the Plantation; Enquire of Mr. William Bradford Printer in 
N. York, and know further. 20 

For more than a century and a half afterward, advertisements 
took this form with minor alterations. For example, sixty-four 
years after Mr. Bradford advertised an estate in Oyster Bay, the 
legendary Paul Revere placed the following advertisement in 
the Boston Gazette: 

Whereas many persons are sO unfortunate as to lose their Fore- 
Teeth by Accident, and otherways, to their great Detriment, not 
only in Looks, but Speaking both in Public and Private: — This is to 
inform all such, that they may have them re-placed with false 
Ones, that look as well as the Natural, and Answers the End of 
Speaking to all Intents, by paul revere. Goldsmith, near the Head 
of Dr. Clarke's Wharf, Boston. 21 

Revere went on to explain in another paragraph that those 
whose false teeth had been fitted by John Baker, and who had 
suffered the indignity of having them loosen, might come to 
Revere to have them tightened. He indicated that he had 
learned how to do this from John Baker himself. 

Not until almost a hundred years after Revere's announce- 
ment were there any serious attempts by advertisers to over- 
come the lineal, typographic form demanded by publishers. 22 
And not until the end of the nineteenth century did advertising 
move fully into its modern mode of discourse. As late as 1890, 
advertising, still understood to consist of words, was regarded 
as an essentially serious and rational enterprise whose purpose 
was to convey information and make claims in propositional 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


form. Advertising was, as Stephen Douglas said in another con- 
text, intended to appeal to understanding, not to passions. This 
is not to say that during the period of typographic display, the 
claims that were put forward were true. Words cannot guaran- 
tee their truth content. Rather, they assemble a context in 
which the question. Is this true or false? is relevant. In the 
1890's that context was shattered, first by the massive intrusion 
of illustrations and photographs, then by the nonpropositional 
use of language. For example, in the 1890's advertisers adopted 
the technique of using slogans. Presbrey contends that modern 
advertising can be said to begin with the use of two such slo- 
gans: “You press the button; we do the rest" and “See that 
hump?" At about the same time, jingles started to be used, and 
in 1892, Procter and Gamble invited the public to submit 
rhymes to advertise Ivory Soap. In 1896, H-O employed, for the 
first time, a picture of a baby in a high chair, the bowl of cereal 
before him, his spoon in hand, his face ecstatic. By the turn of 
the century, advertisers no longer assumed rationality on the 
part of their potential customers. Advertising became one part 
depth psychology, one part aesthetic theory. Reason had to 
move itself to other arenas. 

To understand the role that the printed word played in pro- 
viding an earlier America with its assumptions about intelli- 
gence, truth and the nature of discourse, one must keep in view 
that the act of reading in the eighteenth and nineteenth cen- 
turies had an entirely different quality to it than the act of read- 
ing does today. For one thing, as I have said, the printed word 
had a monopoly on both attention and intellect, there being no 
other means, besides the oral tradition, to have access to public 
knowledge. Public figures were known largely by their written 
words, for example, not by their looks or even their oratory. It is 
quite likely that most of the first fifteen presidents of the United 
States would not have been recognized had they passed the 
average citizen in the street. This would have been the case as 
well of the great lawyers, ministers and scientists of that era. To 

The Typographic Mind 


think about those men was to think about what they had writ- 
ten, to judge them by their public positions, their arguments, 
their knowledge as codified in the printed word. You may get 
some sense of how we are separated from this kind of con- 
sciousness by thinking about any of our recent presidents; or 
even preachers, lawyers and scientists who are or who have 
recently been public figures. Think of Richard Nixon or Jimmy 
Carter or Billy Graham, or even Albert Einstein, and what will 
come to your mind is an image, a picture of a face, most likely a 
face on a television screen (in Einstein's case, a photograph of a 
face). Of words, almost nothing will come to mind. This is the 
difference between thinking in a word-centered culture and 
thinking in an image-centered culture. 

It is also the difference between living in a culture that pro- 
vides little opportunity for leisure, and one that provides much. 
The farm boy following the plow with book in hand, the 
mother reading aloud to her family on a Sunday afternoon, the 
merchant reading announcements of the latest clipper arrivals 
— these were different kinds of readers from those of today. 
There would have been little casual reading, for there was not a 
great deal of time for that. Reading would have had a sacred 
element in it, or if not that, would have at least occurred as a 
daily or weekly ritual invested with special meaning. For we 
must also remember that this was a culture without electricity. 
It would not have been easy to read by either candlelight or, 
later, gaslight. Doubtless, much reading was done between 
dawn and the start of the day's business. What reading would 
have been done was done seriously, intensely, and with stead- 
fast purpose. The modern idea of testing a reader's "compre- 
hension,” as distinct from something else a reader may be 
doing, would have seemed an absurdity in 1790 or 1830 or 
1860. What else was reading but comprehending? As far as we 
know, there did not exist such a thing as a "reading problem," 
except, of course, for those who could not attend school. To 
attend school meant to leam to read, for without that capacity. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


one could not participate in the culture's conversations. But 
most people could read and did participate. To these people, 
reading was both their connection to and their model of the 
world. The printed page revealed the world, line by line, page 
by page, to be a serious, coherent place, capable of manage- 
ment by reason, and of improvement by logical and relevant 

Almost anywhere one looks in the eighteenth and nineteenth 
centuries, then, one finds the resonances of the printed word 
and, in particular, its inextricable relationship to all forms of 
public expression. It may be true, as Charles Beard wrote, that 
the primary motivation of the writers of the United States Con- 
stitution was the protection of their economic interests. But it is 
also true that they assumed that participation in public life re- 
quired the capacity to negotiate the printed word. To them, ma- 
ture citizenship was not conceivable without sophisticated 
literacy, which is why the voting age in most states was set at 
twenty-one, and why Jefferson saw in universal education 
America's best hope. And that is also why, as Allan Nevins and 
Henry Steele Commager have pointed out, the voting restric- 
tions against those who owned no property were frequently 
overlooked, but not one's inability to read. 

It may be true, as Frederick Jackson Turner wrote, that the 
spirit that fired the American mind was the fact of an ever- 
expanding frontier. But it is also true, as Paul Anderson has 
written, that "it is no mere figure of speech to say that farm boys 
followed the plow with book in hand, be it Shakespeare, Emer- 
son, or Thoreau." 23 For it was not only a frontier mentality that 
led Kansas to be the first state to permit women to vote in 
school elections, or Wyoming the first state to grant complete 
equality in the franchise. Women were probably more adept 
readers than men, and even in the frontier states the principal 
means of public discourse issued from the printed word. Those 
who could read had, inevitably, to become part of the conver- 

The Typographic Mind 


It may also be true, as Perry Miller has suggested, that the 
religious fervor of Americans provided much of their energy; or, 
as earlier historians told it, that America was created by an idea 
whose time had come. I quarrel with none of these explana- 
tions. I merely observe that the America they try to explain was 
dominated by a public discourse which took its form from the 
products of the printing press. For two centuries, America de- 
clared its intentions, expressed its ideology, designed its laws, 
sold its products, created its literature and addressed its deities 
with black squiggles on white paper. It did its talking in typog- 
raphy, and with that as the main feature of its symbolic envi- 
ronment rose to prominence in world civilization. 

The name I give to that period of time during which the 
American mind submitted itself to the sovereignty of the print- 
ing press is the Age of Exposition. Exposition is a mode of 
thought, a method of learning, and a means of expression. Al- 
most all of the characteristics we associate with mature dis- 
course were amplified by typography, which has the strongest 
possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think 
conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of 
reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large ca- 
pacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for de- 
layed response. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, for 
reasons I am most anxious to explain, the Age of Exposition 
began to pass, and the early signs of its replacement could be 
discerned. Its replacement was to be the Age of Show Business. 

5 - 

The Peek-a-Boo 

Toward the middle years of the nineteenth century, two ideas 
came together whose convergence provided twentieth-century 
America with a new metaphor of public discourse. Their part- 
nership overwhelmed the Age of Exposition, and laid the foun- 
dation for the Age of Show Business. One of the ideas was quite 
new, the other as old as the cave paintings of Altamira. We shall 
come to the old idea presently. The new idea was that transpor- 
tation and communication could be disengaged from each 
other, that space was not an inevitable constraint on the move- 
ment of information. 

Americans of the 1 800's were very much concerned with the 
problem of “conquering” space. By the mid-nineteenth cen- 
tury, the frontier extended to the Pacific Ocean, and a rudimen- 
tary railroad system, begun in the 1830's, had started to move 
people and merchandise across the continent. But until the 
1840's, information could move only as fast as a human being 
could carry it; to be precise, only as fast as a train could travel, 
which, to be even more precise, meant about thirty-five miles 
per hour. In the face of such a limitation, the development of 
America as a national community was retarded. In the 1840's, 
America was still a composite of regions, each conversing in its 
own ways, addressing its own interests. A continentwide con- 
versation was not yet possible. 

The solution to these problems, as every school child used to 
know, was electricity. To no one's surprise, it was an American 
who found a practical way to put electricity in the service of 


The Peek-a-Boo World 


communication and, in doing so, eliminated the problem of 
space once and for all. I refer, of course, to Samuel Finley 
Breese Morse, America's first true “spaceman.'' His telegraph 
erased state lines, collapsed regions, and, by wrapping the con- 
tinent in an information grid, created the possibility of a unified 
American discourse. 

But at a considerable cost. For telegraphy did something that 
Morse did not foresee when he prophesied that telegraphy 
would make “one neighborhood of the whole country.” It de- 
stroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so 
gave a new meaning to public discourse. Among the few who 
understood this consequence was Henry David Thoreau, who 
remarked in Walden that “We are in great haste to construct a 
magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, 
it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . . We are 
eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some 
weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will 
leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that 
Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough." 1 

Thoreau, as it turned out, was precisely correct. He grasped 
that the telegraph would create its own definition of discourse; 
that it would not only permit but insist upon a conversation 
between Maine and Texas; and that it would require the con- 
tent of that conversation to be different from what Typographic 
Man was accustomed to. 

The telegraph made a three-pronged attack on typography's 
definition of discourse, introducing on a large scale irrelevance, 
impotence, and incoherence. These demons of discourse were 
aroused by the fact that telegraphy gave a form of legitimacy to 
the idea of context-free information; that is, to the idea that the 
value of information need not be tied to any function it might 
serve in social and political decision-making and action, but 
may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity. The 
telegraph made information into a commodity, a “thing" that 
could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


But it did not do so alone. The potential of the telegraph to 
transform information into a commodity might never have 
been realized, except for the partnership between the telegraph 
and the press. The penny newspaper, emerging slightly before 
telegraphy, in the 1830's, had already begun the process of ele- 
vating irrelevance to the status of news. Such papers as Ben- 
jamin Day's New York Sun and James Bennett's New York Herald 
turned away from the tradition of news as reasoned (if biased) 
political opinion and urgent commercial information and filled 
their pages with accounts of sensational events, mostly con- 
cerning crime and sex. While such "human interest news" 
played little role in shaping the decisions and actions of readers, 
it was at least local — about places and people within their expe- 
rience — and it was not always tied to the moment. The human- 
interest stories of the penny newspapers had a timeless quality; 
their power to engage lay not so much in their currency as in 
their transcendence. Nor did all newspapers occupy themselves 
with such content. For the most part, the information they pro- 
vided was not only local but largely functional — lied to the 
problems and decisions readers had to address in order to man- 
age their personal and community affairs. 

The telegraph changed all that, and with astonishing speed. 
Within months of Morse's first public demonstration, the local 
and the timeless had lost their central position in newspapers, 
eclipsed by the dazzle of distance and speed. In fact, the first 
known use of the telegraph by a newspaper occurred one day 
after Morse gave his historic demonstration of telegraphy's 
workability. Using the same Washington-lo- Baltimore line 
Morse had constructed, the Baltimore Patriot gave its readers in- 
formation about action taken by the House of Representatives 
on the Oregon issue. The paper concluded its report by noting: 

. . we are thus enabled to give our readers information from 
Washington up to two o'clock. This is indeed the annihilation 
of space." 2 

For a brief time, practical problems (mostly involving the 

The Peek-a-Boo World 


scarcity of telegraph lines) preserved something of the old defi- 
nition of news as functional information. But the foresighted 
among the nation's publishers were quick to see where the fu- 
ture lay, and committed their full resources to the wiring of the 
continent. William Swain, the owner of the Philadelphia Public 
Ledger, not only invested heavily in the Magnetic Telegraph 
Company, the first commercial telegraph corporation, but be- 
came its president in 1850. 

It was not long until the fortunes of newspapers came to de- 
pend not on the quality or utility of the news they provided, but 
on how much, from what distances, and at what speed. James 
Bennett of the New York Herald boasted that in the first week of 
1848, his paper contained 79,000 words of telegraphic con- 
tent 5 — of what relevance to his readers, he didn't say. Only 
four years after Morse opened the nation's first telegraph line 
on May 24, 1844, the Associated Press was founded, and news 
from nowhere, addressed to no one in particular, began to criss- 
cross the nation. Wars, crimes, crashes, fires, floods — much of it 
the social and political equivalent of Adelaide's whooping 
cough — became the content of what people called "the news of 
the day." 

As Thoreau implied, telegraphy made relevance irrelevant. 
The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to 
do with those to whom it was addressed; that is, with any social 
or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded. 
Coleridge's famous line about water everywhere without a drop 
to drink may serve as a metaphor of a decontextualized infor- 
mation environment: In a sea of information, there was very 
little of it to use. A man in Maine and a man in Texas could 
converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared 
very much about. The telegraph may have made the country 
into "one neighborhood," but it was a peculiar one, populated 
by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts 
about each other. 

Since we live today in just such a neighborhood (now some- 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


times called a "global village"), you may get a sense of what is 
meant by context-free information by asking yourself the fol- 
lowing question: How often does it occur that information pro- 
vided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning 
newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day. or to take 
some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides 
insight into some problem you are required to solve? For most 
of us, news of the weather will sometimes have such conse- 
quences; for investors, news of the stock market; perhaps an 
occasional story about a crime will do it, if by chance the crime 
occurred near where you live or involved someone you know. 
But most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information 
that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any 
meaningful action. This fact is the principal legacy of the tele- 
graph: By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it 
dramatically altered what may be called the "information- 
action ratio." 

In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its 
importance from the possibilities of action. Of course, in any 
communication environment, input (what one is informed 
about) always exceeds output (the possibilities of action based 
on information). But the situation created by telegraphy, and 
then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship 
between information and action both abstract and remote. For 
the first time in human history, people were faced with the 
problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously 
they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and 
political potency. 

You may get a sense of what this means by asking yourself 
another series of questions: What steps do you plan to take to 
reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, 
crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving 
the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do 
you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, 
and the monstrous treatment of the Baha'is in Iran? I shall take 

The Peek-a-Boo World 


the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about 
them. You may, of course, cast a ballot for someone who claims 
to have some plans, as well as the power to act. But this you can 
do only once every two or four years by giving one hour of your 
time, hardly a satisfying means of expressing the broad range of 
opinions you hold. Voting, we might even say, is the next to last 
refuge of the politically impotent. The last refuge is, of course, 
giving your opinion to a pollster, who will get a version of it 
through a desiccated question, and then will submerge it in a 
Niagara of similar opinions, and convert them into — what 
else? — another piece of news. Thus, we have here a great loop 
of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions 
about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more 
newS, about which you can do nothing. 

Prior to the age of telegraphy, the information-action ratio 
was sufficiently close so that most people had a sense of being 
able to control some of the contingencies in their lives. What 
people knew about had action-value. In the information world 
created by telegraphy, this sense of potency was lost, precisely 
because the whole world became the context for news. Every- 
thing became everyone's business. For the first time, we were 
sent information which answered no question we had asked, 
and which, in any case, did not permit the right of reply. 

We may say then that the contribution of the telegraph to 
public discourse was to dignify irrelevance and amplify impo- 
tence. But this was not all: Telegraphy also made public dis- 
course essentially incoherent. It brought into being a world of 
broken time and broken attention, to use Lewis Mumford's 
phrase. The principal strength of the telegraph was its capacity 
to move information, not collect it, explain it or analyze it. In 
this respect, telegraphy was the exact opposite of typography. 
Books, for example, are an excellent container for the accumu- 
lation, quiet scrutiny and organized analysis of information and 
ideas. It takes time to write a book, and to read one; time to 
discuss its contents and to make judgments about their merit. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


including the form of their presentation. A book is an attempt to 
make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conver- 
sation conducted by authors of the past. Therefore, civilized 
people everywhere consider the burning of a book a vile form of 
anti-intellectualism. But the telegraph demands that we bum its 
contents. The value of telegraphy is undermined by applying the 
tests of permanence, continuity or coherence. The telegraph is 
suited only to the flashing of messages, each to be quickly re- 
placed by a more up-to-date message. Facts push other facts 
into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit 
nor require evaluation. 

The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation 
whose form had startling characteristics: Its language was the 
language of headlines — sensational, fragmented, impersonal. 
News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement, to 
be forgotten with dispatch. Its language was also entirely dis- 
continuous. One message had no connection to that which pre- 
ceded or followed it. Each “headline” stood alone as its own 
context. The receiver of the news had to provide a meaning if he 
could. The sender was under no obligation to do so. And be- 
cause of all this, the world as depicted by the telegraph began to 
appear unmanageable, even undecipherable. The line-by-line, 
sequential, continuous form of the printed page slowly began to 
lose its resonance as a metaphor of how knowledge was to be 
acquired and how the world was to be understood. “Knowing" 
the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one 
understood implications, background, or connections. Tele- 
graphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives 
and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intel- 
ligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about 

Thus, to the reverent question posed by Morse — What hath 
God wrought? — a disturbing answer came back: a neighbor- 
hood of strangers and pointless quantity; a world of fragments 
and discontinuities. God, of course, had nothing to do with it. 

The Peek-a-Boo World 


And yet, for all of the power of the telegraph, had it stood alone 
as a new metaphor for discourse, it is likely that print culture 
would have withstood its assault; would, at least, have held its 
ground. As it happened, at almost exactly the same time Morse 
was reconceiving the meaning of information, Louis Daguerre 
was reconceiving the meaning of nature; one might even say, of 
reality itself. As Daguerre remarked in 1838 in a notice designed 
to attract investors, "The daguerreotype is not merely an instru- 
ment which serves to draw nature . . . [it] gives her the power to 
reproduce herself." 4 

Of course both the need and the power to draw nature have 
always implied reproducing nature, refashioning it to make it 
comprehensible and manageable. The earliest cave paintings 
were quite possibly visual projections of a hunt that had not yet 
taken place, wish fulfillments of an anticipated subjection of 
nature. Reproducing nature, in other words, is a very old idea. 
But Daguerre did not have this meaning of "reproduce" in 
mind. He meant to announce that the photograph would invest 
everyone with the power to duplicate nature as often and wher- 
ever one liked. He meant to say he had invented the world's 
first "cloning" device, that the photograph was to visual experi- 
ence what the printing press was to the written word. 

In point of fact, the daguerreotype was not quite capable of 
achieving such an equation. It was not until William Henry Fox 
Talbot, an English mathematician and linguist, invented the 
process of preparing a negative from which any number of posi- 
tives could be made that the mass printing and publication of 
photographs became possible. 5 The name "photography" was 
given to this process by the famous astronomer Sir John F. W. 
Herschel. It is an odd name since it literally means "writing 
with light." Perhaps Herschel meant the name to be taken iron- 
ically, since it must have been clear from the beginning that 
photography and writing (in fact, language in any form) do not 
inhabit the same universe of discourse. 

Nonetheless, ever since the process was named it has been 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


the custom to speak of photography as a “language.” The meta- 
phor is risky because it tends to obscure the fundamental differ- 
ences between the two modes of conversation. To begin with, 
photography is a language that speaks only in particularities. Its 
vocabulary of images is limited to concrete representation. Un- 
like words and sentences, the photograph does not present to us 
an idea or concept about the world, except as we use language 
itself to convert the image to idea. By itself, a photograph can- 
not deal with the unseen, the remote, the internal, the abstract. 
It does not speak of “man,” only of a man; not of “tree,” only 
of a tree. You cannot produce a photograph of “nature," any 
more than a photograph of “the sea." You can only photograph 
a particular fragment of the here-and-now — a cliff of a certain 
terrain, in a certain condition of light; a wave at a moment in 
time, from a particular point of view. And just as “nature" and 
“the sea" cannot be photographed, such larger abstractions as 
truth, honor, love, falsehood cannot be talked about in the lex- 
icon of pictures. For “showing of' and “talking about" are two 
very different kinds of processes. "Pictures," Gavriel Salomon 
has written, "need to be recognized, words need to be under- 
stood ." 6 By this he means that the photograph presents the 
world as object; language, the world as idea. For even the sim- 
plest act of naming a thing is an act of thinking — of comparing 
one thing with others, selecting certain features in common, 
ignoring what is different, and making an imaginary category. 
There is no such thing in nature as "man" or "tree." The uni- 
verse offers no such categories or simplifications; only flux and 
infinite variety. The photograph documents and celebrates the 
particularities of this infinite variety. Language makes them 

The photograph also lacks a syntax, which deprives it of a 
capacity to argue with the world. As an "objective" slice of 
space-time, the photograph testifies that someone was there or 
something happened. Its testimony is powerful but it offers no 
opinions — no "should-have-beens" or "might-have-beens.” 

The Peek-a-Boo World 


Photography is preeminently a world of fact, not of dispute 
about facts or of conclusions to be drawn from them. But this is 
not to say photography lacks an epistemological bias. As Susan 
Sontag has observed, a photograph implies “that we know 
about the world if we accept it as the camera records it .” 7 But, 
as she further observes, all understanding begins with our not 
accepting the world as it appears. Language, of course, is the 
medium we use to challenge, dispute, and cross-examine what 
comes into view, what is on the surface. The words “true” and 
"false” come from the universe of language, and no other. 
When applied to a photograph, the question. Is it true? means 
only. Is this a reproduction of a real slice of space-time? If the 
answer is "Yes,” there are no grounds for argument, for it 
makes no sense to disagree with an unfaked photograph. The 
photograph itself makes no arguable propositions, makes no 
extended and unambiguous commentary. It offers no assertions 
to refute, so it is not refutable. 

The way in which the photograph records experience is also 
different from the way of language. Language makes sense only 
when it is presented as a sequence of propositions. Meaning is 
distorted when a word or sentence is, as we say, taken out of 
context; when a reader or listener is deprived of what was said 
before, and after. But there is no such thing as a photograph 
taken out of context, for a photograph does not require one. In 
fact, the point of photography is to isolate images from context, 
so as to make them visible in a different way. In a world of 
photographic images, Ms. Sontag writes, "all borders . . . seem 
arbitrary. Anything can be separated, can be made discontin- 
uous, from anything else: All that is necessary is to frame the 
subject differently ." 8 She is remarking on the capacity of photo- 
graphs to perform a peculiar kind of dismembering of reality, a 
wrenching of moments out of their contexts, and a juxtaposing 
of events and things that have no logical or historical 
connection with each other. Like telegraphy, photography re- 
creates the world as a series of idiosyncratic events. There is no 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


beginning, middle, or end in a world of photographs, as there is 
none implied by telegraphy. The world is atomized. There is 
only a present and it need not be part of any story that can be 

That the image and the word have different functions, work 
at different levels of abstraction, and require different modes of 
response will not come as a new idea to anyone. Painting is at 
least three times as old as writing, and the place of imagery in 
the repertoire of communication instruments was quite well 
understood in the nineteenth century. What was new in the 
mid-nineteenth century was the sudden and massive intrusion 
of the photograph and other iconographs into the symbolic 
environment. This event is what Daniel Boorstin in his pioneer- 
ing book The Image calls "the graphic revolution." By this 
phrase, Boorstin means to call attention to the fierce assault on 
language made by forms of mechanically reproduced imagery 
that spread unchecked throughout American culture — photo- 
graphs, prints, posters, drawings, advertisements. 1 choose the 
word "assault" deliberately here, to amplify the point implied 
in Boorstin's "graphic revolution." The new imagery, with 
photography at its forefront, did not merely function as a sup- 
plement to language, but bid to replace it as our dominant 
means for construing, understanding, and testing reality. What 
Boorstin implies about the graphic revolution, I wish to make 
explicit here: The new focus on the image undermined tradi- 
tional definitions of information, of news, and, to a large extent, 
of reality itself. First in billboards, posters, and advertisements, 
and later in such "news" magazines and papers as Life. Look, 
the New York Daily Mirror and Daily News, the picture forced 
exposition into the background, and in some instances obliter- 
ated it altogether. By the end of the nineteenth century, adver- 
tisers and newspapermen had discovered that a picture was not 
only worth a thousand words, but, where sales were concerned, 
was better. For countless Americans, seeing, not reading, be- 
came the basis for believing. 

The Peek-a-Boo World 


In a peculiar way, the photograph was the perfect com- 
plement to the flood of telegraphic news- from -nowhere that 
threatened to submerge readers in a sea of facts from unknown 
places about strangers with unknown faces. For the photograph 
gave a concrete reality to the strange-sounding datelines, and 
attached faces to the unknown names. Thus it provided the illu- 
sion, at least, that "the news" had a connection to something 
within one's sensory experience. It created an apparent context 
for the "nevys of the day." And the "news of the day" created a 
context for the photograph. 

But the sense of context created by the partnership of photo- 
graph and headline was, of course, entirely illusory. You may 
get a better sense of what I mean here if you imagine a 
stranger's informing you that the illyx is a subspecies of ver- 
miform plant with articulated leaves that flowers biannually on 
the island of Aldononjes. And if you wonder aloud, "Yes, but 
what has that to do with anything?" imagine that your infor- 
mant replies, "But here is a photograph I want you to see," and 
hands you a picture labeled Illyx on Aldononjes. "Ah, yes," you 
might murmur, "now I see." It is true enough that the photo- 
graph provides a context for the sentence you have been given, 
and that the sentence provides a context of sorts for the photo- 
graph, and you may even believe for a day or so that 
you have learned something. But if the event is entirely self- 
contained, devoid of any relationship to your past knowledge or 
future plans, if that is the beginning and end of your encounter 
with the stranger, then the appearance of context provided by 
the conjunction of sentence and image is illusory, and so is the 
impression of meaning attached to it. You will, in fact, have 
"learned" nothing (except perhaps to avoid strangers with pho- 
tographs), and the illyx will fade from your mental landscape as 
though it had never been. At best you are left with an amusing 
bit of trivia, good for trading in cocktail party chatter or solving 
a crossword puzzle, but nothing more. 

It may be of some interest to note, in this connection, that the 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


crossword puzzle became a popular form of diversion in Amer- 
ica at just that point when the telegraph and the photograph 
had achieved the transformation of news from functional infor- 
mation to decontextualized fact. This coincidence suggests that 
the new technologies had turned the age-old problem of infor- 
mation on its head: Where people once sought information to 
manage the real contexts of their lives, now they had to invent 
contexts in which otherwise useless information might be put 
to some apparent use. The crossword puzzle is one such 
pseudo-context; the cocktail party is another; the radio quiz 
shows of the 1930's and 1940's and the modern television 
game show are still others; and the ultimate, perhaps, is the 
wildly successful "Trivial Pursuit." In one form or another, each 
of these supplies an answer to the question, "What am I to do 
with all these disconnected facts?" And in one form or another, 
the answer is the same: Why not use them for diversion? for 
entertainment? to amuse yourself, in a game? In The Image, 
Boorstin calls the major creation of the graphic revolution the 
"pseudo-event," by which he means an event specifically 
staged to be reported — like the press conference, say. I mean to 
suggest here that a more significant legacy of the telegraph and 
the photograph may be the pseudo-context. A pseudo-context is 
a structure invented to give fragmented and irrelevant informa- 
tion a seeming use. But the use the pseudo-context provides is 
not action, or problem-solving, or change. It is the only use left 
for information with no genuine connection to our lives. And 
that, of course, is to amuse. The pseudo-context is the last ref- 
uge, so to say, of a culture overwhelmed by irrelevance, in- 
coherence, and impotence. 

Of course, photography and telegraphy did not strike down at 
one blow the vast edifice that was typographic culture. The hab- 
its of exposition, as I have tried to show, had a long history, and 
they held powerful sway over the minds of turn-of- the- century 
Americans. In fact, the early decades of the twentieth century 
were marked by a great outpouring of brilliant language and 

The Peek-a-Boo World 


literature. In the pages of magazines like the American Mercury 
and The New Yorker, in the novels and stories of Faulkner, 
Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Hemingway, and even in the col- 
umns of the newspaper giants — the Herald Tribune, the Times — 
prose thrilled with a vibrancy and intensity that delighted ear 
and eye. But this was exposition's nightingale song, most bril- 
liant and sweet as the singer nears the moment of death. It told, 
for the Age of Exposition, not of new beginnings, but of an end. 
Beneath its dying melody, a new note had been sounded, and 
photography and telegraphy set the key. Theirs was a "lan- 
guage” that denied interconnectedness, proceeded without 
context, argued the irrelevance of history, explained nothing, 
and offered fascination in place of complexity and coherence. 
Theirs was a duet of image and instancy, and together they 
played the tune of a new kind of public discourse in America. 

Each of the media that entered the electronic conversation in 
the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries followed the 
lead of the telegraph and the photograph, and amplified their 
biases. Some, such as film, were by their nature inclined to do 
so. Others, whose bias was rather toward the amplification of 
rational speech — like radio — were overwhelmed by the thrust 
of the new epistemology and came in the end to support it. 
Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into 
being a new world — a peek-a-boo world, where now this 
event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes 
again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world 
that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; 
a world that is, like the child's game of peek-a-boo, entirely 
self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly enter- 

Of course, there is nothing wrong with playing peek-a-boo. 
And there is nothing wrong with entertainment. As some psy- 
chiatrist once put it, we all build castles in the air. The problems 
come when we try to live in them. The communications media 
of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with tele- 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


graphy and photography at their center, called the peek-a-boo 
world into existence, but we did not come to live there until 
television. Television gave the epistemological biases of the tele- 
graph and the photograph their most potent expression, raising 
the interplay of image and instancy to an exquisite and dan- 
gerous perfection. And it brought them into the home. We are 
by now well into a second generation of children for whom 
television has been their first and most accessible teacher and, 
for many, their most reliable companion and friend. To put it 
plainly, television is the command center of the new epistemol- 
ogy. There is no audience so young that it is barred from televi- 
sion. There is no poverty so abject that it must forgo television. 
There is no education so exalted that it is not modified by televi- 
sion. And most important of all, there is no subject of public 
interest — politics, news, education, religion, science, sports — 
that does not find its way to television. Which means that all 
public understanding of these subjects is shaped by the biases of 

Television is the command center in subtler ways as well. Our 
use of other media, for example, is largely orchestrated by tele- 
vision. Through it we learn what telephone system to use, what 
movies to see, what books, records and magazines to buy, what 
radio programs to listen to. Television arranges our communi- 
cations environment for us in ways that no other medium has 
the power to do. 

As a small, ironic example of this point, consider this: In the 
past few years, we have been learning that the computer is the 
technology of the future. We are told that our children will fail 
in school and be left behind in life if they are not "computer 
literate." We are told that we cannot run our businesses, or 
compile our shopping lists, or keep our checkbooks tidy unless 
we own a computer. Perhaps some of this is true. But the most 
important fact about computers and what they mean to our 
lives is that we learn about all of this from television. Television 
has achieved the status of "meta-medium" — an instrument 

The Peek-a-Boo World 


that directs not only our knowledge of the world, but our 
knowledge of ways of knowing as well. 

At the same time, television has achieved the status of 
“myth,'' as Roland Barthes uses the word. He means by myth a 
way of understanding the world that is not problematic, that we 
are not fully conscious of, that seems, in a word, natural. A 
myth is a way of thinking so deeply embedded in our con- 
sciousness that it is invisible. This is now the way of television. 
We are no longer fascinated or perplexed by its machinery. We 
do not tell stories of its wonders. We do not confine our televi- 
sion sets to special rooms. We do not doubt the reality of what 
we see on television, are largely unaware of the special angle of 
vision it affords. Even the question of how television affects us 
has receded into the background. The question itself may strike 
some of us as strange, as if one were to ask how having ears and 
eyes affects us. Twenty years ago, the question. Does television 
shape culture or merely reflect it? held considerable interest for 
many scholars and social critics. The question has largely disap- 
peared as television has gradually become our culture. This 
means, among other things, that we rarely talk about television, 
only about what is on television — that is, about its content. Its 
ecology, which includes not only its physical characteristics and 
symbolic code but the conditions in which we normally attend 
to it, is taken for granted, accepted as natural. 

Television has become, so to speak, the background radiation 
of the social and intellectual universe, the all-but-imperceptible 
residue of the electronic big bang of a century past, so familiar 
and so thoroughly integrated with American culture that we no 
longer hear its faint hissing in the background or see the flicker- 
ing gray light. This, in turn, means that its epistemology goes 
largely unnoticed. And the peek-a-boo world it has constructed 
around us no longer seems even strange. 

There is no more disturbing consequence of the electronic 
and graphic revolution than this: that the world as given to us 
through television seems natural, not bizarre. For the loss of the 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


sense of the strange is a sign of adjustment, and the extent to 
which we have adjusted is a measure of the extent to which we 
have been changed. Our culture's adjustment to the epistemol- 
ogy of television is by now all but complete; we have so thor- 
oughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality 
that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and in- 
coherence seems eminently sane. And if some of our institu- 
tions seem not to fit the template of the times, why it is they, 
and not the template, that seem to us disordered and strange. 

It is my object in the rest of this book to make the episte- 
mology of television visible again. I will try to demonstrate by 
concrete example that television's way of knowing is uncom- 
promisingly hostile to typography's way of knowing; that tele- 
vision's conversations promote incoherence and triviality; that 
the phrase "serious television" is a contradiction in terms; and 
that television speaks in only one persistent voice — the voice of 
entertainment. Beyond that, I will try to demonstrate that to 
enter the great television conversation, one American cultural 
institution after another is learning to speak its terms. Televi- 
sion, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast 
arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in 
the end we shall find that delightful, and decide we like it just 
fine. That is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming, 
fifty years ago. 

Part II. 

6 * 

The Age of 
Show Business 

A dedicated graduate student I know returned to his small 
apartment the night before a major examination only to dis- 
cover that his solitary lamp was broken beyond repair. After a 
whiff of panic, he was able to restore both his equanimity and 
his chances for a satisfactory grade by turning on the television 
set, turning off the sound, and with his back to the set, using its 
light to read important passages on which he was to be tested. 
This is one use of television — as a source of illuminating the 
printed page. 

But the television screen is more than a light source. It is also 
a smooth, nearly flat surface on which the printed word may be 
displayed. We have all stayed at hotels in which the TV set has 
had a special channel for describing the day's events in letters 
rolled endlessly across the screen. This is another use of televi- 
sion — as an electronic bulletin board. 

Many television sets are also large and sturdy enough to bear 
the weight of a small library. The top of an old-fashioned RCA 
console can handle as many as thirty books, and I know one 
woman who has securely placed her entire collection of Dick- 
ens, Flaubert, and Turgenev on the top of a 21 -inch West- 
inghouse. Here is still another use of television — as bookcase. 

I bring forward these quixotic uses of television to ridicule the 
hope harbored by some that television can be used to support 
the literate tradition. Such a hope represents exactly what 
Marshall McLuhan used to call "rear-view mirror" thinking: 
the assumption that a new medium is merely an extension or 


Amusing Ourselves to Death 


amplification of an older one; that an automobile, for example, 
is only a fast horse, or an electric light a powerful candle. To 
make such a mistake in the matter at hand is to misconstrue 
entirely how television redefines the meaning of public dis- 
course. Television does not extend or amplify literate culture. It 
attacks it. If television is a continuation of anything, it is of a 
tradition begun by the telegraph and photograph in the mid- 
nineteenth century, not by the printing press in the fifteenth. 

What is television? What kinds of conversations does it per- 
mit? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages? What 
sort of culture does it produce? 

These are the questions to be addressed in the rest of this 
book, and to approach them with a minimum of confusion, I 
must begin by making a distinction between a technology and a 
medium. We might say that a technology is to a medium as the 
brain is to the mind. Like the brain, a technology is a physical 
apparatus. Like the mind, a medium is a use to which a physical 
apparatus is put. A technology becomes a medium as it employs 
a particular symbolic code, as it finds its place in a particular 
social setting, as it insinuates itself into economic and political 
contexts. A technology, in other words, is merely a machine. A 
medium is the social and intellectual environment a machine 

Of course, like the brain itself, every technology has an inher- 
ent bias. It has within its physical form a predisposition toward 
being used in certain ways and not others. Only those who 
know nothing of the history of technology believe that a tech- 
nology is entirely neutral. There is an old joke that mocks that 
naive belief. Thomas Edison, it goes, would have revealed his 
discovery of the electric light much sooner than he did except 
for the fact that every time he turned it on, he held it to his 
mouth and said, "Hello? Hello?" 

Not very likely. Each technology has an agenda of its own. It 
is, as I have suggested, a metaphor waiting to unfold. The print- 
ing press, for example, had a clear bias toward being used as a 

The Age of Show Business 


linguistic medium. It is conceivable to use it exclusively for the 
reproduction of pictures. And, one imagines, the Roman Cath- 
olic Church would not have objected to its being so used in the 
sixteenth century. Had that been the case, the Protestant Refor- 
mation might not have occurred, for as Luther contended, with 
the word of God on every family's kitchen table, Christians do 
not require the Papacy to interpret it for them. But in fact there 
never was much chance that the press would be used solely, or 
even very much, for the duplication of icons. From its beginning 
in the fifteenth century, the press was perceived as an extraordi- 
nary opportunity for the display and mass distribution of writ- 
ten language. Everything about its technical possibilities led in 
that direction. One might even say it was invented for that 

The technology of television has a bias, as well. It is conceiv- 
able to use television as a lamp, a surface for texts, a bookcase, 
even as radio. But it has not been so used and will not be so 
used, at least in America. Thus, in answering the question. 
What is television?, we must understand as a first point that we- 
are not talking about television as a technology but television as 
a medium. There are many places in the world where televi- 
sion, though the same technology as it is in America, is an en- 
tirely different medium from that which we know. I refer to 
places where the majority of people do not have television sets, 
and those who do have only one; where only one station is 
available; where television does not operate around the clock; 
where most programs have as their purpose the direct fur- 
therance of government ideology and policy; where commer- 
cials are unknown, and "talking heads" are the principal 
image; where television is mostly used as if it were radio. For 
these reasons and more television will not have the same mean- 
ing or power as it does in America, which is to say, it is possible 
for a technology to be so used that its potentialities are pre- 
vented from developing and its social consequences kept to a 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


But in America, this has not been the case. Television has 
found in liberal democracy and a relatively free market econ- 
omy a nurturing climate in which its full potentialities as a tech- 
nology of images could be exploited. One result of this has been 
that American television programs are in demand all over the 
world. The total estimate of U.S. television program exports is 
approximately 100,000 to 200,000 hours, equally divided 
among Latin America, Asia and Europe. 1 Over the years, pro- 
grams like "Gunsmoke," "Bonanza,” "Mission: Impossible,” 
"Star Trek," "Kojak," and more recently, "Dallas" and "Dy- 
nasty" have been as popular in England, Japan, Israel and Nor- 
way as in Omaha, Nebraska. I have heard (but not verified) that 
some years ago the Lapps postponed for several days their an- 
nual and, one supposes, essential migratory journey so that 
they could find out who shot J.R. All of this has occurred simul- 
taneously with the decline of America's moral and political 
prestige, worldwide. American television programs are in de- 
mand not because America is loved but because American tele- 
vision is loved. 

We need not be detained too long in figuring out why. In 
watching American television, one is reminded of George Ber- 
nard Shaw's remark on his first seeing the glittering neon signs 
of Broadway and 42nd Street at night. It must be beautiful, he 
said, if you cannot read. American television is, indeed, a beau- 
tiful spectacle, a visual delight, pouring forth thousands of im- 
ages on any given day. The average length of a shot on network 
television is only 3.5 seconds, so that the eye never rests, always 
has something new to see. Moreover, television offers viewers a 
variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend 
it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification. Even com- 
mercials, which some regard as an annoyance, are exquisitely 
crafted, always pleasing to the eye and accompanied by exciting 
music. There is no question but that the best photography in the 
world is presently seen on television commercials. American 

The Age of Show Business 


television, in other words, is devoted entirely to supplying its 
audience with entertainment. 

Of course, to say that television is entertaining is merely ba- 
nal. Such a fact is hardly threatening to a culture, not even 
worth writing a book about. It may even be a reason for rejoic- 
ing. Life, as we like to say, is not a highway strewn with flow- 
ers. The sight of a few blossoms here and there may make our 
journey a trifle more endurable. The Lapps undoubtedly 
thought so. We may surmise that the ninety million Americans 
who watch television every night also think so. But what I am 
claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has 
made entertainment itself the natural format for the representa- 
tion of all experience. Our television set keeps us in constant 
communion with the world, but it does so with a face whose 
smiling countenance is unalterable. The problem is not that 
television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that 
all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another 
issue altogether. 

To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra- 
ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is de- 
picted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption 
is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why 
even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of 
tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to 
"join them tomorrow." What for? One would think that several 
minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a 
month of sleepless nights. We accept the newscasters' invitation 
because we know that the "news" is not to be taken seriously, 
that it is all in fun, so to say. Everything about a news show tells 
us this — the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant 
banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the 
vivid film footage, the attractive commercials — all these and 
more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weep- 
ing. A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertain- 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 

ment, not for education, reflection or catharsis. And we must 
not judge too harshly those who have framed it in this way. 
They are not assembling the news to be read, or broadcasting it 
to be heard. They are televising the news to be seen. They must 
follow where their medium leads. There is no conspiracy here, 
no lack of intelligence, only a straightforward recognition that 
"good television" has little to do with what is "good" about 
exposition or other forms of verbal communication but every- 
thing to do with what the pictorial images look like. 

I should like to illustrate this point by offering the case of the 
eighty-minute discussion provided by the ABC network on No- 
vember 20, 1983, following its controversial movie The Day 
After. Though the memory of this telecast has receded for most, 
I choose this case because, clearly, here was television taking its 
most "serious" and "responsible" stance. Everything that made 
up this broadcast recommended it as a critical test of television's 
capacity to depart from an entertainment mode and rise to the 
level of public instruction. In the first place, the subject was the 
possibility of a nuclear holocaust. Second, the film itself had 
been attacked by several influential bodies politic, including the 
Reverend Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. Thus, it was impor- 
tant that the network display television's value and serious in- 
tentions as a medium of information and coherent discourse. 
Third, on the program itself no musical theme was used as 
background — a significant point since almost all television pro- 
grams are embedded in music, which helps to tell the audience 
what emotions are to be called forth. This is a standard theatri- 
cal device, and its absence on television is always ominous. 
Fourth, there were no commercials during the discussion, thus 
elevating the tone of the event to the state of reverence usually 
reserved for the funerals of assassinated Presidents. And finally, 
the participants included Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, 
and Elie Wiesel, each of whom is a symbol of sorts of serious 
discourse. Although Kissinger, somewhat later, made an ap- 
pearance on the hit show "Dynasty," he was then and still is a 

The Age of Show Business 


paradigm of intellectual sobriety; and Wiesel, practically a 
walking metaphor of social conscience. Indeed, the other mem- 
bers of the cast — Carl Sagan, William Buckley and General 
Brent Scowcroft — are, each in his way, men of intellectual 
bearing who are not expected to participate in trivial public 

The program began with Ted Koppel, master of ceremonies, 
so to speak, indicating that what followed was not intended to 
be a debate but a discussion. And so those who are interested in 
philosophies of discourse had an excellent opportunity to ob- 
serve what serious television means by the word "discussion." 
Here is what it means: Each of six men was given approxi- 
mately five minutes to say something about the subject. There 
was, however, no agreement on exactly what the subject was, 
and no one felt obliged to respond to anything anyone else said. 
In fact, it would have been difficult to do so, since the partici- 
pants were called upon seriatim, as if they were finalists in a 
beauty contest, each being given his share of minutes in front of 
the camera. Thus, if Mr. Wiesel, who was called upon last, had 
a response to Mr. Buckley, who was called upon first, there 
would have been four commentaries in between, occupying 
about twenty minutes, so that the audience (if not Mr. Wiesel 
himself) would have had difficulty remembering the argument 
which prompted his response. In fact, the participants — most of 
whom were no strangers to television — largely avoided ad- 
dressing each other's points. They used their initial minutes and 
then their subsequent ones to intimate their position or give an 
impression. Dr. Kissinger, for example, seemed intent on mak- 
ing viewers feel sorry that he was no longer their Secretary of 
State by reminding everyone of books he had once written, pro- 
posals he had once made, and negotiations he had once con- 
ducted. Mr. McNamara informed the audience that he had 
eaten lunch in Germany that very afternoon, and went on to 
say that he had at least fifteen proposals to reduce nuclear arms. 
One would have thought that the discussion would turn on this 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


issue, but the others seemed about as interested in it as they 
were in what he had for lunch in Germany. (Later, he took the 
initiative to mention three of his proposals but they were not 
discussed.) Elie Wiesel, in a series of quasi-parables and para- 
doxes, stressed the tragic nature of the human condition, but 
because he did not have the time to provide a context for his 
remarks, he seemed quixotic and confused, conveying an im- 
pression of an itinerant rabbi who has wandered into a coven of 

In other words, this was no discussion as we normally use the 
word. Even when the "discussion” period began, there were no 
arguments or counterarguments, no scrutiny of assumptions, 
no explanations, no elaborations, no definitions. Carl Sagan 
made, in my opinion, the most coherent statement — a four- 
minute rationale for a nuclear freeze — but it contained at least 
two questionable assumptions and was not carefully examined. 
Apparently, no one wanted to take time from his own few min- 
utes to call attention to someone else's. Mr. Koppel, for his part, 
felt obliged to keep the "show" moving, and though he occa- 
sionally pursued what he discerned as a line of thought, he was 
more concerned to give each man his fair allotment of time. 

But it is not time constraints alone that produce such frag- 
mented and discontinuous language. When a television show is 
in process, it is very nearly impermissible to say, "Let me think 
about that" or "I don't know" or "What do you mean when 
you say . . . ?" or "From what sources does your information 
come?" This type of discourse not only slows down the tempo 
of the show but creates the impression of uncertainty or lack of 
finish. It tends to reveal people in the act of thinking, which is as 
disconcerting and boring on television as it is on a Las Vegas 
stage. Thinking does not play well on television, a fact that tele- 
vision directors discovered long ago. There is not much to see in 
it. It is. in a phrase, not a performing art. But television de- 
mands a performing art, and so what the ABC network gave us 
was a picture of men of sophisticated verbal skills and political 

The Age of Show Business 


understanding being brought to heel by a medium that requires 
them to fashion performances rather than ideas. Which ac- 
counts for why the eighty minutes were very entertaining, in 
the way of a Samuel Beckett play: The intimations of gravity 
hung heavy, the meaning passeth all understanding. The per- 
formances, of course, were highly professional. Sagan abjured 
the turtle-neck sweater in which he starred when he did "Cos- 
mos.” He even had his hair cut for the event. His part was that 
of the logical scientist speaking in behalf of the planet. It is to be 
doubted that Paul Newman could have done better in the role, 
although Leonard Nimoy might have. Scowcroft was suitably 
military in his bearing — terse and distant, the unbreakable de- 
fender of national security. Kissinger, as always, was superb in 
the part of the knowing world statesman, weary of the sheer 
responsibility of keeping disaster at bay. Koppel played to per- 
fection the part of a moderator, pretending, as it were, that he 
was sorting out ideas while, in fact, he was merely directing the 
performances. At the end, one could only applaud those per- 
formances, which is what a good television program always 
aims to achieve; that is to say, applause, not reflection. 

I do not say categorically that it is impossible to use television 
as a carrier of coherent language or thought in process. William 
Buckley's own program, "Firing Line," occasionally shows 
people in the act of thinking but who also happen to have tele- 
vision cameras pointed at them. There are other programs, such 
as "Meet the Press" or "The Open Mind," which clearly strive 
to maintain a sense of intellectual decorum and typographic tra- 
dition, but they are scheduled so that they do not compete with 
programs of great visual interest, since otherwise, they will not 
be watched. After all, it is not unheard of that a format will 
occasionally go against the bias of its medium. For example, the 
most popular radio program of the early 1940's featured a ven- 
triloquist, and in those days, I heard more than once the feet of 
a tap dancer on the "Major Bowes' Amateur Hour." (Indeed, if 
I am not mistaken, he even once featured a pantomimist.) But 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


ventriloquism, dancing and mime do not play well on radio, 
just as sustained, complex talk does not play well on television. 
It can be made to play tolerably well if only one camera is used 
and the visual image is kept constant — as when the President 
gives a speech. But this is not television at its best, and it is not 
television that most people will choose to watch. The single 
most important fact about television is that people watch it, 
which is why it is called "television. " And what they watch, and 
like to watch, are moving pictures — millions of them, of short 
duration and dynamic variety. It is in the nature of the medium 
that it must suppress the content of ideas in order to accommo- 
date the requirements of visual interest; that is to say, to accom- 
modate the values of show business. 

Film, records and radio (now that it is an adjunct of the music 
industry) are, of course, equally devoted to entertaining the cul- 
ture, and their effects in altering the style of American discourse 
are not insignificant. But television is different because it en- 
compasses all forms of discourse. No one goes to a movie to find 
out about government policy or the latest scientific advances. 
No one buys a record to find out the baseball scores or the 
weather or the latest murder. No one turns on radio anymore 
for soap operas or a presidential address (if a television set is at 
hand). But everyone goes to television for all these things and 
more, which is why television resonates so powerfully through- 
out the culture. Television is our culture's principal mode of 
knowing about itself. Therefore — and this is the critical point — 
how television stages the world becomes the model for how the 
world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the televi- 
sion screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is 
that off the screen the same metaphor prevails. As typography 
once dictated the style of conducting politics, religion, business, 
education, law and other important social matters, television 
now takes command. In courtrooms, classrooms, operating 
rooms, board rooms, churches and even airplanes, Americans 
no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do 

The Age of Show Business 


not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue 
with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and 
commercials. For the message of television as metaphor is not 
only that all the world is a stage but that the stage is located in 
Las Vegas, Nevada. 

In Chicago, for example, the Reverend Greg Sakowicz, a Ro- 
man Catholic priest, mixes his religious teaching with rock 'n' 
roll music. According to the Associated Press, the Reverend 
Sakowicz is both an associate pastor at the Church of the Holy 
Spirit in Schaumberg (a suburb of Chicago) and a disc jockey at 
WKQX. On his show, "The Journey Inward," Father Sakowicz 
chats in soft tones about such topics as family relationships or 
commitment, and interposes his sermons with "the sound of 
Billboard's Top 10." He says that his preaching is not done "in a 
churchy way,” and adds, "You don't have to be boring in order 
to be holy.” 

Meanwhile in New York City at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Fa- 
ther John J. O'Connor put on a New York Yankee baseball cap 
as he mugged his way through his installation as Archbishop of 
the New York Archdiocese. He got off some excellent gags, at 
least one of which was specifically directed at Mayor Edward 
Koch, who was a member of his audience; that is to say, he was 
a congregant. At his next public performance, the new arch- 
bishop donned a New York Mets baseball cap. These events 
were, of course, televised, and were vastly entertaining, largely 
because Archbishop (now Cardinal) O'Connor has gone Father 
Sakowicz one better: Whereas the latter believes that you don't 
have to be boring to be holy, the former apparently believes you 
don't have to be holy at all. 

In Phoenix, Arizona, Dr. Edward Dietrich performed triple by- 
pass surgery on Bernard Schuler. The operation was successful, 
which was nice for Mr. Schuler. It was also on television, which 
was nice for America. The operation was carried by at least fifty 
television stations in the United States, and also by the British 
Broadcasting Corporation. A two-man panel of narrators (a 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


play-by-play and color man, so to speak) kept viewers informed 
about what they were seeing. It was not clear as to why this 
event was televised, but it resulted in transforming both Dr. Die- 
trich and Mr. Schuler's chest into celebrities. Perhaps because 
he has seen too many doctor shows on television, Mr. Schuler 
was uncommonly confident about the outcome of his surgery. 
"There is no way in hell they are going to lose me on live TV," 
he said. 2 

As reported with great enthusiasm by both WCBS-TV and 
WNBC-TV in 1984, the Philadelphia public schools have em- 
barked on an experiment in which children will have their cur- 
riculum sung to them. Wearing Walkman equipment, students 
were shown listening to rock music whose lyrics were about the 
eight parts of speech. Mr. Jocko Henderson, who thought of 
this idea, is planning to delight students further by subjecting 
mathematics and history, as well as English, to the rigors of a 
rock music format. In fact, this is not Mr. Henderson's idea at 
all. It was pioneered by the Children's Television Workshop, 
whose television show "Sesame Street" is an expensive illustra- 
tion of the idea that education is indistinguishable from enter- 
tainment. Nonetheless, Mr. Henderson has a point in his favor. 
Whereas "Sesame Street" merely attempts to make learning to 
read a form of light entertainment, the Philadelphia experiment 
aims to make the classroom itself into a rock concert. 

In New Bedford, Massachusetts, a rape trial was televised, to 
the delight of audiences who could barely tell the difference 
between the trial and their favorite mid-day soap opera. In Flor- 
ida, trials of varying degrees of seriousness, including murder, 
are regularly televised and are considered to be more entertain- 
ing than most fictional courtroom dramas. All of this is done in 
the interests of "public education." For the same high purpose, 
plans are afoot, it is rumored, to televise confessionals. To be 
called "Secrets of the Confessional Box," the program will, of 
course, carry the warning that some of its material may be of- 
fensive to children and therefore parental guidance is suggested. 

The Age of Show Business 


On a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Vancouver, a 
stewardess announces that its passengers will play a game. The 
passenger with the most credit cards will win a bottle of cham- 
pagne. A man from Boston with twelve credit cards wins. A 
second game requires the passengers to guess the collective age 
of the cabin crew. A man from Chicago guesses 128, and wins 
another bottle of wine. During the second game, the air turns 
choppy and the Fasten Seat Belt sign goes on. Very few people 
notice, least of all the cabin crew, who keep up a steady flow of 
gags on the intercom. When the plane reaches its destination, 
everyone seems to agree that it's fun to fly from Chicago to 

On February 7, 1985, The New York Times reported that Pro- 
fessor Charles Pine of Rutgers University (Newark campus) was 
named Professor of the Year by the Council for the Support and 
Advancement of Education. In explaining why he has such a 
great impact on his students. Professor Pine said: "I have some 
gimmicks I use all the time. If you reach the end of the black- 
board, I keep writing on the wall. It always gets a laugh. The 
way I show what a glass molecule does is to run over to one 
wall and bounce off it, and run over to the other wall.” His 
students are, perhaps, too young to recall that James Cagney 
used this "molecule move" to great effect in Yankee Doodle 
Dandy. If I am not mistaken, Donald O'Connor duplicated it in 
Singin' in the Rain. So far as I know, it has been used only once 
before in a classroom: Hegel tried it several times in demon- 
strating how the dialectical method works. 

The Pennsylvania Amish try to live in isolation from main- 
stream American culture. Among other things, their religion 
opposes the veneration of graven images, which means that the 
Amish are forbidden to see movies or to be photographed. But 
apparently their religion has not got around to disallowing see- 
ing movies when they are being photographed. In the summer 
of 1984, for example, a Paramount Pictures crew descended 
upon Lancaster County to film the movie Witness, which is 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


about a detective, played by Harrison Ford, who falls in love 
with an Amish woman. Although the Amish were warned by 
their church not to interfere with the film makers, it turned out 
that some Amish welders ran to see the action as soon as their 
work was done. Other devouts lay in the grass some distance 
away, and looked down on the set with binoculars. "We read 
about the movie in the paper," said an Amish woman. "The 
kids even cut out Harrison Ford's picture." She added: "But it 
doesn't really matter that much to them. Somebody told us he 
was in Star Wars but that doesn't mean anything to us." 3 The 
last time a similar conclusion was drawn was when the ex- 
ecutive director of the American Association of Blacksmiths re- 
marked that he had read about the automobile but that he was 
convinced it would have no consequences for the future of his 

In the Winter, 1984, issue of the Official Video Journal there 
appears a full-page advertisement for "The Genesis Project." 
The project aims to convert the Bible into a series of movies. The 
end-product, to be called "The New Media Bible," will consist 
of 225 hours of film and will cost a quarter of a billion dollars. 
Producer John Heyman, whose credits include Saturday Night 
Fever and Grease, is one of the film makers most committed to 
the project. "Simply stated," he is quoted as saying, "I got 
hooked on the Bible." The famous Israeli actor Topol, best 
known for his role as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, will play the 
role of Abraham. The advertisement does not say who will star 
as God but, given the producer's background, there is some 
concern that it might be John Travolta. 

At the commencement exercises at Yale University in 1983, 
several honorary degrees were awarded, including one to 
Mother Teresa. As she and other humanitarians and scholars, 
each in turn, received their awards, the audience applauded ap- 
propriately but with a slight hint of reserve and impatience, for 
it wished to give its heart to the final recipient who waited shyly 
in the wings. As the details of her achievements were being 

The Age of Show Business 


recounted, many people left their seats and surged toward the 
stage to be closer to the great woman. And when the name 
Meryl Streep was announced, the audience unleashed a sonic 
boom of affection to wake the New Haven dead. One man who 
was present when Bob Hope received his honorary doctorate at 
another institution said that Dr. Streep's applause surpassed Dr. 
Hope's. Knowing how to please a crowd as well as anyone, the 
intellectual leaders at Yale invited Dick Cavett, the talk-show 
host, to deliver the commencement address the following year. 
It is rumored that this year, Don Rickies will receive a Doctorate 
of Humane Letters and Lola Falana will give the commence- 
ment address. 

Prior to the 1984 presidential elections, the two candidates 
confronted each other on television in what were called "de- 
bates.” These events were not in the least like the Lincoln- 
Douglas debates or anything else that goes by the name. Each 
candidate was given five minutes to address such questions as. 
What is (or would be) your policy in Central America? His op- 
posite number was then given one minute for a rebuttal. In 
such circumstances, complexity, documentation and logic can 
play no role, and, indeed, on several occasions syntax itself 
was abandoned entirely. It is no matter. The men were less 
concerned with giving arguments than with "giving off' im- 
pressions, which is what television does best. Post-debate com- 
mentary largely avoided any evaluation of the candidates' 
ideas, since there were none to evaluate. Instead, the debates 
were conceived as boxing matches, the relevant question being. 
Who KO'd whom? The answer was determined by the "style" 
of the men — how they looked, fixed their gaze, smiled, and 
delivered one-liners. In the second debate. President Reagan got 
off a swell one-liner when asked a question about his age. The 
following day, several newspapers indicated that Ron had KO'd 
Fritz with his joke. Thus, the leader of the free world is chosen 
by the people in the Age of Television. 

What all of this means is that our culture has moved toward a 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 

new way of conducting its business, especially its important 
business. The nature of its discourse is changing as the demarca- 
tion line between what is show business and what is not be- 
comes harder to see with each passing day. Our priests and 
presidents, our surgeons and lawyers, our educators and news- 
casters need worry less about satisfying the demands of their 
discipline than the demands of good showmanship. Had Irving 
Berlin changed one word in the title of his celebrated song, he 
would have been as prophetic, albeit more terse, as Aldous 
Huxley. He need only have written. There's No Business But 
Show Business. 


"Now . . . This" 

The American humorist H. Allen Smith once suggested that of 
all the worrisome words in the English language, the scariest is 
"uh oh/' as when a physician looks at your X-rays, and with 
knitted brow says, "Uh oh." I should like to suggest that the 
words which are the title of this chapter are as ominous as any, 
all the more so because they are spoken without knitted brow — 
indeed, with a kind of idiot's delight. The phrase, if that's what 
it may be called, adds to our grammar a new part of speech, a 
conjunction that does not connect anything to anything but 
does the opposite: separates everything from everything. As 
such, it serves as a compact metaphor for the discontinuities 
in so much that passes for public discourse in present-day 

"Now . . . this" is commonly used on radio and television 
newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has 
no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to 
anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means 
of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the 
speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is 
not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no 
earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly — for 
that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so 
threatening — that it cannot be erased from our minds by a 
newscaster saying, "Now . . . this." The newscaster means that 
you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approx- 
imately forty-five seconds), that you must not be morbidly pre- 


Amusing Ourselves to Death 


occupied with it (let us say, for ninety seconds), and that you 
must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a 

Television did not invent the "Now . . . this" world view. As I 
have tried to show, it is the offspring of the intercourse between 
telegraphy and photography. But it is through television that it 
has been nurtured and brought to a perverse maturity. For on 
television, nearly every half hour is a discrete event, separated 
in content, context, and emotional texture from what precedes 
and follows it. In part because television sells its time in seconds 
and minutes, in part because television must use images rather 
than words, in part because its audience can move freely to and 
from the television set, programs are structured so that almost 
each eight- minute segment may stand as a complete event in 
itself. Viewers are rarely required to carry over any thought or 
feeling from one parcel of time to another. 

Of course, in television's presentation of the "news of the 
day," we may sfce the "Now . . . this" mode of discourse in its 
boldest and most embarrassing form. For there, we are pre- 
sented not only with fragmented news but news without con- 
text, without consequences, without value, and therefore 
without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure 

Consider, for example, how you would proceed if you were 
given the opportunity to produce a television news show for 
any station concerned to attract the largest possible audience. 
You would, first, choose a cast of players, each of whom has a 
face that is both "likable" and "credible." Those who apply 
would, in fact, submit to you their eight-by-ten glossies, from 
which you would eliminate those whose countenances are not 
suitable for nightly display. This means that you will exclude 
women who are not beautiful or who are over the age of fifty, 
men who are bald, all people who are overweight or whose 
noses are too long or whose eyes are too close together. You 
will try, in other words, to assemble a cast of talking hair-do's. 

"Now . . . This" 


At the very least, you will want those whose faces would not be 
unwelcome on a magazine cover. 

Christine Craft has just such a face, and so she applied for a 
co-anchor position on KMBC-TV in Kansas City. According to a 
lawyer who represented her in a sexism suit she later brought 
against the station, the management of KMBC-TV “loved 
Christine's look.” She was accordingly hired in January 1981. 
She was fired in August 1981 because research indicated that 
her appearance “hampered viewer acceptance." 1 What exactly 
does “hampered viewer acceptance" mean? And what does it 
have to do with the news? Hampered viewer acceptance means 
the same thing for television news as it does for any television 
show: Viewers do not like looking at the performer. It also 
means that viewers do not believe the performer, that she lacks 
credibility. In the case of a theatrical performance, we have a 
sense of what that implies: The actor does not persuade the 
audience that he or she is the character being portrayed. But 
what does lack of credibility imply in the case of a news show? 
What character is a co-anchor playing? And how do we decide 
that the performance lacks verisimilitude? Does the audience 
believe that the newscaster is lying, that what is reported 
did not in fact happen, that something important is being 

It is frightening to think that this may be so, that the percep- 
tion of the truth of a report rests heavily on the acceptability of 
the newscaster. In the ancient world, there was a tradition of 
banishing or killing the bearer of bad tidings. Does the television 
news show restore, in a curious form, this tradition? Do we ban- 
ish those who tell us the news when we do not care for the face 
of the teller? Does television countermand the warnings we 
once received about the fallacy of the ad hominem argument? 

If the answer to any of these questions is even a qualified 
"Yes," then here is an issue worthy of the attention of epis- 
temologists. Stated in its simplest form, it is that television pro- 
vides a new (or, possibly, restores an old) definition of truth: 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a 
proposition. "Credibility” here does not refer to the past record 
of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors 
of reality-testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, 
authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness (choose one or 
more) conveyed by the actor/reporter. 

This is a matter of considerable importance, for it goes beyond 
the question of how truth is perceived on television news 
shows. If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive 
test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble them- 
selves very much with reality provided that their performances 
consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude. I suspect, for ex- 
ample, that the dishonor that now shrouds Richard Nixon re- 
sults not from the fact that he lied but that on television he 
looked like a liar. Which, if true, should bring no comfort to 
anyone, not even veteran Nixon-haters. For the alternative pos- 
sibilities are that one may look like a liar but be telling the truth; 
or even worse, look like a truth-teller but in fact be lying. 

As a producer of a television news show, you would be well 
aware of these matters and would be careful to choose your cast 
on the basis of criteria used by David Merrick and other 
successful impresarios. Like them, you would then turn your 
attention to staging the show on principles that maximize en- 
tertainment value. You would, for example, select a musical 
theme for the show. All television news programs begin, end, 
and are somewhere in between punctuated with music. I have 
found very few Americans who regard this custom as peculiar, 
which fact I have taken as evidence for the dissolution of lines 
of demarcation between serious public discourse and entertain- 
ment. What has music to do with the news? Why is it there? It 
is there, I assume, for the same reason music is used in the 
theater and films — to create a mood and provide a leitmotif for 
the entertainment. If there were no music — as is the case when 
any television program is interrupted for a news flash — viewers 
would expect something truly alarming, possibly life-altering. 

"Now . . . This" 


But as long as the music is there as a frame for the program, the 
viewer is comforted to believe that there is nothing to be greatly 
alarmed about; that, in fact, the events that are reported have as 
much relation to reality as do scenes in a play. 

This perception of a news show as a stylized dramatic per- 
formance whose content has been staged largely to entertain is 
reinforced by several other features, including the fact that the 
average length of any story is forty-five seconds. While brevity 
does not always suggest triviality, in this case it clearly does. It is 
simply not possible to convey a sense of seriousness about any 
event if its implications are exhausted in less than one minute's 
time. In fact, it is quite obvious that TV news has no intention of 
suggesting that any story has any implications, for that would 
require viewers to continue to think about it when it is done 
and therefore obstruct their attending to the next story that 
waits panting in the wings. In any case, viewers are not pro- 
vided with much opportunity to be distracted from the next 
story since in all likelihood it will consist of some film footage. 
Pictures have little difficulty in overwhelming words, and short- 
circuiting introspection. As a television producer, you would be 
certain to give both prominence and precedence to any event 
for which there is some sort of visual documentation. A sus- 
pected killer being brought into a police station, the angry face 
of a cheated consumer, a barrel going over Niagara Falls (with a 
person alleged to be in it), the President disembarking from a 
helicopter on the White House lawn — these are always fasci- 
nating or amusing, and easily satisfy the requirements of an en- 
tertaining show. It is, of course, not necessary that the visuals 
actually document the point of a story. Neither is it necessary to 
explain why such images are intruding themselves on public 
consciousness. Film footage justifies itself, as every television 
producer well knows. 

It is also of considerable help in maintaining a high level of 
unreality that the newscasters do not pause to grimace or shiver 
when they speak their prefaces or epilogs to the film clips. In- 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


deed, many newscasters do not appear to grasp the meaning of 
what they are saying, and some hold to a fixed and ingratiating 
enthusiasm as they report on earthquakes, mass killings and 
other disasters. Viewers would be quite disconcerted by any 
show of concern or terror on the part of newscasters. Viewers, 
after all, are partners with the newscasters in the "Now . . . this" 
culture, and they expect the newscaster to play out his or her 
role as a character who is marginally serious but who stays well 
clear of authentic understanding. The viewers, for their part, 
will not be caught contaminating their responses with a sense of 
reality, any more than an audience at a play would go scurrying 
to call home because a character on stage has said that a mur- 
derer is loose in the neighborhood. 

The viewers also know that no matter how grave any frag- 
ment of news may appear (for example, on the day I write a 
Marine Corps general has declared that nuclear war between 
the United States and Russia is inevitable), it will shortly be 
followed by a series of commercials that will, in an instant, de- 
fuse the import of the news, in fact render it largely banal. This 
is a key element in the structure of a news program and all by 
itself refutes any claim that television news is designed as a se- 
rious form of public discourse. Imagine what you would think 
of me, and this book, if I were to pause here, tell you that I will 
return to my discussion in a moment, and then proceed to write 
a few words in behalf of United Airlines or the Chase Manhat- 
tan Bank. You would rightly think that I had no respect for you 
and, certainly, no respect for the subject. And if I did this not 
once but several times in each chapter, you would think the 
whole enterprise unworthy of your attention. Why, then, do we 
not think a news show similarly unworthy? The reason, I be- 
lieve, is that whereas we expect books and even other media 
(such as film) to maintain a consistency of tone and a continuity 
of content, we have no such expectation of television, and espe- 
cially television news. We have become so accustomed to its 
discontinuities that we are no longer struck dumb, as any sane 

"Now . . . This" 


person would be, by a newscaster who having just reported that 
a nuclear war is inevitable goes on to say that he will be right 
back after this word from Burger King; who says, in other 
words, “Now . . . this.” One can hardly overestimate the dam- 
age that such juxtapositions do to our sense of the world as a 
serious place. The damage is especially massive to youthful 
viewers who depend so much on television for their clues as to 
how to respond to the world. In watching television news, they, 
more than any other segment of the audience, are drawn into 
an epistemology based on the assumption that all reports of cru- 
elty and death are greatly exaggerated and, in any case, not to 
be taken seriously or responded to sanely. 

I should go so far as to say that embedded in the surrealistic 
frame of a television news show is a theory of anticommunica- 
tion, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, 
sequence and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the 
name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; 
in psychiatry, schizophrenia. In the parlance of the theater, it is 
known as vaudeville. 

For those who think I am here guilty of hyperbole, I offer the 
following description of television news by Robert MacNeil, ex- 
ecutive editor and co-anchor of the “MacNeil-Lehrer News- 
hour." The idea, he writes, “is to keep everything brief, not to 
strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant 
stimulation through variety, novelty, action, and movement. 
You are required ... to pay attention to no concept, no char- 
acter, and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time." 2 
He goes on to say that the assumptions controlling a news show 
are “that bite-sized is best, that complexity must be avoided, 
that nuances are dispensable, that qualifications impede the 
simple message, that visual stimulation is a substitute for 
thought, and that verbal precision is an anachronism." 3 

Robert MacNeil has more reason than most to give testimony 
about the television news show as vaudeville act. The “Mac- 
Neil-Lehrer Newshour" is an unusual and gracious attempt to 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


bring to television some of the elements of typographic dis- 
course. The program abjures visual stimulation, consists largely 
of extended explanations of events and in-depth interviews 
(which even there means only five to ten minutes), limits the 
number of stories covered, and emphasizes background and 
coherence. But television has exacted its price for MacNeiPs re- 
jection of a show business format. By television's standards, 
the audience is minuscule, the program is confined to public- 
television stations, and it is a good guess that the combined 
salary of MacNeil and Lehrer is one-fifth of Dan Rather's or Tom 

If you were a producer of a television news show for a com- 
mercial station, you would not have the option of defying tele- 
vision's requirements. It would be demanded of you that you 
strive for the largest possible audience, and, as a consequence 
and in spite of your best intentions, you would arrive at a pro- 
duction very nearly resembling MacNeiPs description. More- 
over, you would include some things MacNeil does not 
mention. You would try to make celebrities of your newscast- 
ers. You would advertise the show, both in the press and on 
television itself. You would do "news briefs," to serve as an 
inducement to viewers. You would have a weatherman as 
comic relief, and a sportscaster whose language is a touch un- 
couth (as a way of his relating to the beer-drinking common 
man). You would, in short, package the whole event as any 
producer might who is in the entertainment business. 

The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained 
and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western 
world. I say this in the face of the popular conceit that televi- 
sion, as a window to the world, has made Americans exceed- 
ingly well informed. Much depends here, of course, on what is 
meant by being informed. I will pass over the now tiresome 
polls that tell us that, at any given moment, 70 percent of our 
citizens do not know who is the Secretary of State or the Chief 
Justice of the Supreme Court. Let us consider, instead, the case 

"Now . . . This" 


of Iran during the drama that was called the "Iranian Hostage 
Crisis." I don't suppose there has been a story in years that re- 
ceived more continuous attention from television. We may as- 
sume, then, that Americans know most of what there is to 
know about this unhappy event. And now, I put these ques- 
tions to you: Would it be an exaggeration to say that not one 
American in a hundred knows what language the Iranians 
speak? Or what the word "Ayatollah" means or implies? Or 
knows any details of the tenets of Iranian religious beliefs? Or 
the main outlines of their political history? Or knows who the 
Shah was, and where he came from? 

Nonetheless, everyone had an opinion about this event, for in 
America everyone is entitled to an opinion, and it is certainly 
useful to have a few when a pollster shows up. But these 
are opinions of a quite different order from eighteenth- or 
nineteenth-century opinions. It is probably more accurate to 
call them emotions rather than opinions, which would account 
for the fact that they change from week to week, as the pollsters 
tell us. What is happening here is that television is altering the 
meaning of "being informed" by creating a species of informa- 
tion that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this 
word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in 
the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false informa- 
tion. It means misleading information — misplaced, irrelevant, 
fragmented or superficial information — information that cre- 
ates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads 
one away from knowing. In saying this, I do not mean to imply 
that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a 
coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to 
say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the 
inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show 
entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more 
serious than that we are being deprived of authentic informa- 
tion. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall 
we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge? 

Here is a startling example of how this process bedevils us. A 
New York Times article is headlined on February 15, 1983: 


The article begins in the following way: 

President Reagan's aides used to become visibly alarmed at sug- 
gestions that he had given mangled and perhaps misleading ac- 
counts of his policies or of current events in general. That doesn't 
seem to happen much anymore. 

Indeed, the President continues to make debatable assertions of 
fact but news accounts do not deal with them as extensively as 
they once did. In the view of White House officials, the declining 
news coverage mirrors a decline in interest by the general public, (my 

This report is not so much a news story as a story about the 
news, and our recent history suggests that it is not about Ronald 
Reagan's charm. It is about how news is defined, and I believe 
the story would be quite astonishing to both civil libertarians 
and tyrants of an earlier time. Walter Lippmann, for example, 
wrote in 1920: "There can be no liberty for a community which 
lacks the means by which to detect lies." For all of his pessi- 
mism about the possibilities of restoring an eighteenth- and 
nineteenth-century level of public discourse, Lippmann as- 
sumed, as did Thomas Jefferson before him, that with a well- 
trained press functioning as a lie-detector, the public's interest 
in a President's mangling of the truth would be piqued, in both 
senses of that word. Given the means to detect lies, he believed, 
the public could not be indifferent to their consequences. 

But this case refutes his assumption. The reporters who cover 
the White House are ready and able to expose lies, and thus 

"Now . . . This" 


create the grounds for informed and indignant opinion. But ap- 
parently the public declines to take an interest. To press reports 
of White House dissembling, the public has replied with Queen 
Victoria's famous line: "We are not amused." However, here 
the words mean something the Queen did not have in mind. 
They mean that what is not amusing does not compel their at- 
tention. Perhaps if the President's lies could be demonstrated by 
pictures and accompanied by music the public would raise a 
curious eyebrow. If a movie, like All the President's Men, could 
be made from his misleading accounts of government policy, if 
there were a break-in of some sort or sinister characters laun- 
dering money, attention would quite likely be paid. We do well 
to remember that President Nixon did not begin to come un- 
done until his lies were given a theatrical setting at the Water- 
gate hearings. But we do not have anything like that here. 
Apparently, all President Reagan does is say things that are not 
entirely true. And there is nothing entertaining in that. 

But there is a subtler point to be made here. Many of the 
President's "misstatements" fall in the category of contradic- 
tions — mutually exclusive assertions that cannot possibly both, 
in the same context, be true. “In the same context" is the key 
phrase here, for it is context that defines contradiction. There is 
no problem in someone's remarking that he prefers oranges to 
apples, and also remarking that he prefers apples to oranges — 
not if one statement is made in the context of choosing a wall- 
paper design and the other in the context of selecting fruit for 
dessert. In such a case, we have statements that are opposites, 
but not contradictory. But if the statements are made in a single, 
continuous, and coherent context, then they are contradictions, 
and cannot both be true. Contradiction, in short, requires that 
statements and events be perceived as interrelated aspects of a 
continuous and coherent context. Disappear the context, or 
fragment it, and contradiction disappears. This point is nowhere 
made more clear to me than in conferences with my younger 
students about their writing. "Look here," I say. "In this para- 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 110 

graph you have said one thing. And in that you have said the 
opposite. Which is it to be?” They are polite, and wish to please, 
but they are as baffled by the question as I am by the response. 
"I know,” they will say, "but that is there and this is here. " The 
difference between us is that I assume "there" and "here," 
"now" and "then," one paragraph and the next to be con- 
nected, to be continuous, to be part of the same coherent world 
of thought. That is the way of typographic discourse, and typog- 
raphy is the universe I'm "coming from," as they say. But they 
are coming from a different universe of discourse altogether: the 
"Now . . . this" world of television. The fundamental assump- 
tion of that world is not coherence but discontinuity. And in a 
world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of 
truth or merit, because contradiction does not exist. 

My point is that we are by now so thoroughly adjusted to the 
"Now . . . this" world of news — a world of fragments, where 
events stand alone, stripped of any connection to the past, or to 
the future, or to other events — that all assumptions of co- 
herence have vanished. And so, perforce, has contradiction. In 
the context of no context, so to speak, it simply disappears. And 
in its absence, what possible interest could there be in a list of 
what the President says now and what he said then? It is merely 
a rehash of old news, and there is nothing interesting or enter- 
taining in that. The only thing to be amused about is the baffle- 
ment of reporters at the public's indifference. There is an irony 
in the fact that the very group that has taken the world apart 
should, on trying to piece it together again, be surprised that no 
one notices much, or cares. 

For all his perspicacity, George Orwell would have been 
stymied by this situation; there is nothing "Orwellian" about it. 
The President does not have the press under his thumb. The New 
York Times and The Washington Post are not Pravda; the Associ- 
ated Press is notTass. And there is no Newspeak here. Lies have 
not been defined as truth nor truth as lies. All that has hap- 
pened is that the public has adjusted to incoherence and been 

"Now . . . This" 


amused into indifference. Which is why Aldous Huxley would 
not in the least be surprised by the story. Indeed, he prophesied 
its coming. He believed that it is far more likely that the Western 
democracies will dance and dream themselves into oblivion 
than march into it, single file and manacled. Huxley grasped, as 
Orwell did not, that it is not necessary to conceal anything from 
a public insensible to contradiction and narcoticized by tech- 
nological diversions. Although Huxley did not specify that tele- 
vision would be our main line to the drug, he would have no 
difficulty accepting Robert MacNeil's observation that "Televi- 
sion is the soma of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World." Big 
Brother turns out to be Howdy Doody. 

I do not mean that the trivialization of public information is 
all accomplished on television. I mean that television is the par- 
adigm for our conception of public information. As the printing 
press did in an earlier time, television has achieved the power to 
define the form in which news must come, and it has also de- 
fined how we shall respond to it. In presenting news to us pack- 
aged as vaudeville, television induces other media to do the 
same, so that the total information environment begins to mir- 
ror television. 

For example, America's newest and highly successful na- 
tional newspaper, USA Today, is modeled precisely on the for- 
mat of television. It is sold on the street in receptacles that look 
like television sets. Its stories are uncommonly short, its design 
leans heavily on pictures, charts and other graphics, some of 
them printed in various colors. Its weather maps are a visual 
delight; its sports section includes enough pointless statistics to 
distract a computer. As a consequence, USA Today, which be- 
gan publication in September 1982, has become the third 
largest daily in the United States (as of July 1984, according to 
the Audit Bureau of Circulations), moving quickly to overtake 
the Daily News and the Wall Street Journal. Journalists of a more 
traditional bent have criticized it for its superficiality and the- 
atrics, but the paper's editors remain steadfast in their disregard 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


of typographic standards. The paper's Editor-in-Chief, John 
Quinn, has said: "We are not up to undertaking projects of the 
dimensions needed to win prizes. They don't give awards for 
the best investigative paragraph ." 4 Here is an astonishing trib- 
ute to the resonance of television's epistemology: In the age of 
television, the paragraph is becoming the basic unit of news in 
print media. Moreover, Mr. Quinn need not fret too long about 
being deprived of awards. As other newspapers join in the 
transformation, the time cannot be far off when awards will be 
given for the best investigative sentence. 

It needs also to be noted here that new and successful maga- 
zines such as People and Us are not only examples of television- 
oriented print media but have had an extraordinary "ricochet" 
effect on television itself. Whereas television taught the maga- 
zines that news is nothing but entertainment, the magazines 
have taught television that nothing but entertainment is news. 
Television programs, such as "Entertainment Tonight," turn in- 
formation about entertainers and celebrities into "serious" cul- 
tural content, so that the circle begins to close: Both the form 
and content of news become entertainment. 

Radio, of course, is the least likely medium to join in the de- 
scent into a Huxleyan world of technological narcotics. It is, 
after all, particularly well suited to the transmission of rational, 
complex language. Nonetheless, and even if we disregard ra- 
dio's captivation by the music industry, we appear to be left 
with the chilling fact that such language as radio allows us to 
hear is increasingly primitive, fragmented, and largely aimed at 
invoking visceral response; which is to say, it is the linguistic 
analogue to the ubiquitous rock music that is radio's principal 
source of income. As I write, the trend in call-in shows is for the 
"host" to insult callers whose language does not, in itself, go 
much beyond humanoid grunting. Such programs have little 
content, as this word used to be defined, and are merely of ar- 
cheological interest in that they give us a sense of what a di- 
alogue among Neanderthals might have been like. More to the 

"Now . . . This" 


point, the language of radio newscasts has become, under the 
influence of television, increasingly decontextualized and dis- 
continuous, so that the possibility of anyone's knowing about 
the world, as against merely knowing of it, is effectively 
blocked. In New York City, radio station WINS entreats its lis- 
teners to "Give us twenty-two minutes and we'll give you the 
world." This is said without irony, and its audience, we may 
assume, does not regard the slogan as the conception of a dis- 
ordered mind. 

And so, we move rapidly into an information environment 
which may rightly be called trivial pursuit. As the game of that 
name uses facts as a source of amusement, so do our sources of 
news. It has been demonstrated many times that a culture can 
survive misinformation and false opinion. It has not yet been 
demonstrated whether a culture can survive if it takes the mea- 
sure of the world in twenty-two minutes. Or if the value of its 
news is determined by the number of laughs it provides. 

8 . 

Shuffle Off 
to Bethlehem 

There is an evangelical preacher on television who goes by the 
name of Reverend Terry. She appears to be in her early fifties, 
and features a coiffure of which it has been said that it cannot be 
mussed, only broken. Reverend Terry is energetic and folksy, 
and uses a style of preaching modeled on early Milton Berle. 
When her audiences are shown in reaction shots, they are al- 
most always laughing. As a consequence, it would be difficult to 
distinguish them from audiences, say, at the Sands Hotel in Las 
Vegas, except for the fact that they have a slightly cleaner, more 
wholesome look. Reverend Terry tries to persuade them, as well 
as those "at home," to change their ways by finding Jesus 
Christ. To help her do this, she offers a "prosperity Campaign 
Kit," which appears to have a dual purpose: As it brings one 
nearer to Jesus, it also provides advice on how to increase one's 
bank account. This makes her followers extremely happy and 
confirms their predisposition to believe that prosperity is the 
true aim of religion. Perhaps God disagrees. As of this writing. 
Reverend Terry has been obliged to declare bankruptcy and 
temporarily halt her ministrations. 

Pat Robertson is the master of ceremonies of the highly suc- 
cessful "700 Club," a television show and religious organiza- 
tion of sorts to which you can belong by paying fifteen dollars 
per month. (Of course, anyone with cable television can watch 
the show free of charge.) Reverend Robertson does his act in a 
much lower register than Reverend Terry. He is modest, intelli- 
gent, and has the kind of charm television viewers would asso- 


Shuffle Off to Bethlehem 


date with a cool-headed talk-show host. His appeal to godliness 
is considerably more sophisticated than Reverend Terry's, at 
least from the standpoint of television. Indeed, he appears to 
use as his model of communication "Entertainment Tonight." 
His program includes interviews, singers and taped segments 
with entertainers who are born-again Christians. For example, 
all of the chorus girls in Don Ho's Hawaiian act are born-again, 
and in one segment, we are shown them both at prayer and on 
stage (although not at the same time). The program also in- 
cludes taped reenactments of people who, having been driven 
to the edge of despair, are saved by the 700 Club. Such people 
play themselves in these finely crafted docu-dramas. In one, we 
are shown a woman racked with anxiety. She cannot concen- 
trate on her wifely duties. The television shows and movies she 
sees induce a generalized fear of the world. Paranoia closes in. 
She even begins to believe that her own children are trying to 
kill her. As the play proceeds, we see her in front of her televi- 
sion set chancing upon the 700 Club. She becomes interested in 
its message. She allows Jesus to enter her heart. She is saved. At 
the end of the play, we see her going about her business, calmly 
and cheerfully, her eyes illuminated with peace. And so, we 
may say that the 700 Club has twice elevated her to a state of 
transcendence: first, by putting her in the presence of Jesus; 
second, by making her into a television star. To the uninitiated, 
it is not entirely clear which is the higher estate. 

Toward the end of each 700 Club show, the following day's 
acts are announced. They are many and various. The program 
concludes with someone's saying, "All this and more . . . to- 
morrow on the 700 Club." 

Jimmy Swaggart is a somewhat older-style evangelist. 
Though he plays the piano quite well, sings sweetly, and uses 
the full range of television's resources, when he gets going he 
favors a kind of fire-and-brimstone approach. But because this 
is television, he often moderates his message with a dollop of 
ecumenism. For example, his sermon on the question. Are the 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


Jews practicing blasphemy? begins by assuring his audience 
that they are not, by recalling Jesus' bar mitzvah, and by insist- 
ing that Christians owe the Jews a considerable debt. It ends 
with his indicating that with the loss of their Temple in Biblical 
times, the Jews have somehow lost their way. His message sug- 
gests that they are rather to be pitied than despised but that, in 
any case, many of them are pretty nice people. 

It is the perfect television sermon — theatrical, emotional, and 
in a curious way comforting, even to a Jewish viewer. For tele- 
vision — bless its heart — is not congenial to messages of naked 
hate. For one thing, you never know who is watching, so it is 
best not to be wildly offensive. For another, haters with red- 
dened faces and demonic gestures merely look foolish on televi- 
sion, as Marshall McLuhan observed years ago and Senator 
Joseph McCarthy learned to his dismay. Television favors 
moods of conciliation and is at its best when substance of any 
kind is muted. (One must make an exception here for those 
instances when preachers, like Swaggart, turn to the subject of 
the Devil and secular humanism. Then they are quite uncom- 
promising in the ferocity of their assaults, partly, one may as- 
sume, because neither the Devil nor secular humanists are 
included in the Nielsen Ratings. Neither are they inclined to 

There are at present thirty-five television stations owned and 
operated by religious organizations, but every television station 
features religious programming of one sort or another. To pre- 
pare myself for writing this chapter, I watched forty-two hours 
of television's version of religion, mostly the shows of Robert 
Schuller, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, Jim 
Bakker and Pat Robertson. Forty-two hours were entirely un- 
necessary. Five would have provided me with all the conclu- 
sions, of which there are two, that are fairly to be drawn. 

The first is that on television, religion, like everything else, is 
presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertain- 
ment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and 

Shuffle Off to Bethlehem 


sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no 
dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of 
spiritual transcendence. On these shows, the preacher is tops. 
God comes out as second banana. 

The second conclusion is that this fact has more to do with 
the bias of television than with the deficiencies of these elec- 
tronic preachers, as they are called. It is true enough that some 
of these men are uneducated, provincial and even bigoted. They 
certainly do not compare favorably with well-known evan- 
gelicals of an earlier period, such as Jonathan Edwards, George 
Whitefield and Charles Finney, who were men of great learn- 
ing, theological subtlety and powerful expositional skills. None- 
theless, today's television preachers are probably not greatly 
different in their limitations from most earlier evangelicals or 
from many ministers today whose activities are confined to 
churches and synagogues. What makes these television preach- 
ers the enemy of religious experience is not so much their weak- 
nesses but the weaknesses of the medium in which they work. 

Most Americans, including preachers, have difficulty accept- 
ing the truth, if they think about it at all, that not all forms of 
discourse can be converted from one medium to another. It is 
naive to suppose that something that has been expressed in one 
form can be expressed in another without significantly chang- 
ing its meaning, texture or value. Much prose translates fairly 
well from one language to another, but we know that poetry 
does not; we may get a rough idea of the sense of a translated 
poem but usually everything else is lost, especially that which 
makes it an object of beauty. The translation makes it into 
something it was not. To take another example: We may find it 
convenient to send a condolence card to a bereaved friend, but 
we delude ourselves if we believe that our card conveys the 
same meaning as our broken and whispered words when we 
are present. The card not only changes the words but eliminates 
the context from which the words take their meaning. Sim- 
ilarly, we delude ourselves if we believe that most everything a 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 118 

teacher normally does can be replicated with greater efficiency 
by a micro-computer. Perhaps some things can, but there is al- 
ways the question. What is lost in the translation? The answer 
may even be: Everything that is significant about education. 

Though it may be un-American to say it, not everything is 
televisible. Or to put it more precisely, what is televised is trans- 
formed from what it was to something else, which may or may 
not preserve its former essence. For the most part, television 
preachers have not seriously addressed this matter. They have 
assumed that what had formerly been done in a church or a 
tent, and face-to-face, can be done on television without loss of 
meaning, without changing the quality of the religious experi- 
ence. Perhaps their failure to address the translation issue has its 
origin in the hubris engendered by the dazzling number of peo- 
ple to whom television gives them access. 

"Television,” Billy Graham has written, "is the most power- 
ful tool of communication ever devised by man. Each of my 
prime-time 'specials' is now carried by nearly 300 stations 
across the U.S. and Canada, so that in a single telecast I preach 
to millions more than Christ did in his lifetime." 1 To this, Pat 
Robertson adds: "To say that the church shouldn't be involved 
with television is utter folly. The needs are the same, the mes- 
sage is the same, but the delivery can change. ... It would be 
folly for the church not to get involved with the most formative 
force in America." 2 

This is gross technological naivete. If the delivery is not the 
same, then the message, quite likely, is not the same. And if the 
context in which the message is experienced is altogether differ- 
ent from what it was in Jesus' time, we may assume that its 
social and psychological meaning is different, as well. 

To come to the point, there are several characteristics of tele- 
vision and its surround that converge to make authentic reli- 
gious experience impossible. The first has to do with the fact 
that there is no way to consecrate the space in which a televi- 
sion show is experienced. It is an essential condition of any tra- 

Shuffle Off to Bethlehem 


ditional religious service that the space in which it is conducted 
must be invested with some measure of sacrality. Of course, a 
church or synagogue is designed as a place of ritual enactment 
so that almost anything that occurs there, even a bingo game, 
has a religious aura. But a religious service need not occur only 
in a church or synagogue. Almost any place will do, provided it 
is first decontaminated; that is, divested of its profane uses. This 
can be done by placing a cross on a wall, or candles on a table, 
or a sacred document in public view. Through such acts, a gym- 
nasium or dining hall or hotel room can be transformed into a 
place of worship; a slice of space-time can be removed from the 
world of profane events, and be recreated into a reality that 
does not belong to our world. But for this transformation to be 
made, it is essential that certain rules of conduct be observed. 
There will be no eating or idle conversation, for example. One 
may be required to put on a skull cap or to kneel down at ap- 
propriate moments. Or simply to contemplate in silence. Our 
conduct must be congruent with the otherworldliness of the 
space. But this condition is not usually met when we are watch- 
ing a religious television program. The activities in one's living 
room or bedroom or — God help us — one's kitchen are usually 
the same whether a religious program is being presented or 
''The A-Team'' or "Dallas” is being presented. People will eat, 
talk, go to the bathroom, do push-ups or any of the things they 
are accustomed to doing in the presence of an animated televi- 
sion screen. If an audience is not immersed in an aura of mys- 
tery and symbolic otherworldliness, then it is unlikely that it 
can call forth the state of mind required for a nontrivial religious 

Moreover, the television screen itself has a strong bias toward 
a psychology of secularism. The screen is so saturated with our 
memories of profane events, so deeply associated with the com- 
mercial and entertainment worlds that it is difficult for it to be 
recreated as a frame for sacred events. Among other things, the 
viewer is at all times aware that a flick of the switch will pro- 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


duce a different and secular event on the screen — a hockey 
game, a commercial, a cartoon. Not only that, but both prior to 
and immediately following most religious programs, there are 
commercials, promos for popular shows, and a variety of other 
secular images and discourses, so that the main message of the 
screen itself is a continual promise of entertainment. Both the 
history and the ever-present possibilities of the television screen 
work against the idea that introspection or spiritual transcen- 
dence is desirable in its presence. The television screen wants 
you to remember that its imagery is always available for your 
amusement and pleasure. 

The television preachers themselves are well aware of this. 
They know that their programs do not represent a discontinuity 
in commercial broadcasting but are merely part of an unbroken 
continuum. Indeed, many of these programs are presented at 
times other than traditional Sunday hours. Some of the more 
popular preachers are quite willing to go "head to head" with 
secular programs because they believe they can put on a more 
appealing show. Incidentally, the money to do this is no prob- 
lem. Contributions to these shows run into the millions. It has 
been estimated that the total revenue of the electric church ex- 
ceeds $500 million a year. 

I mention this only to indicate why it is possible for these 
preachers to match the high production costs of any strictly 
commercial program. And match them they do. Most of the 
religious shows feature sparkling fountains, floral displays, cho- 
ral groups and elaborate sets. All of them take as their model for 
staging some well-known commercial program. Jim Bakker, for 
example, uses "The Merv Griffin Show" as his guide. More 
than occasionally, programs are done "on location," in exotic 
locales with attractive and unfamiliar vistas. 

In addition, exceedingly handsome people are usually in 
view, both on the stage and in the audience. Robert Schuller is 
particularly partial to celebrities, especially movie actors like 
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., and Cliff Robertson, who have declared 

Shuffle Off to Bethlehem 


their allegiance to him. Not only does Schuller have celebrities 
on his show but his advertisements use their presence to attract 
an audience. Indeed, I think it fair to say that attracting an audi- 
ence is the main goal of these programs, just as it is for "The A- 
Team" and "Dallas." 

To achieve this goal, the most modern methods of marketing 
and promotion are abundantly used, such as offering free pam - 
phlets, Bibles and gifts, and, in Jerry Falwell's case, two free 
"Jesus First" pins. The preachers are forthright about how they 
control the content of their preaching to maximize their ratings. 
You shall wait a very long time indeed if you wish to hear an 
electronic preacher refer to the difficulties a rich man will have 
in gaining access to heaven. The executive director of the Na- 
tional Religious Broadcasters Association sums up what he calls 
the unwritten law of all television preachers: "You can get your 
share of the audience only by offering people something they 
want." J 

You will note, I am sure, that this is an unusual religious 
credo. There is no great religious leader — from the Buddha to 
Moses to Jesus to Mohammed to Luther — who offered people 
what they want. Only what they need. But television is not well 
suited to offering people what they need. It is "user friendly." It 
is too easy to turn off. It is at its most alluring when it speaks the 
language of dynamic visual imagery. It does not accommodate 
complex language or stringent demands. As a consequence, 
what is preached on television is not anything like the Sermon 
on the Mount. Religious programs are filled with good cheer. 
They celebrate affluence. Their featured players become celebri- 
ties. Though their messages are trivial, the shows have high rat- 
ings, or rather, because their messages are trivial, the shows have 
high ratings. 

I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a 
demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy 
and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether. 

There are, of course, counterarguments to the claim that tele- 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


vision degrades religion. Among them is that spectacle is hardly 
a stranger to religion. If one puts aside the Quakers and a few 
other austere sects, every religion tries to make itself appealing 
through art, music, icons and awe-inspiring ritual. The aesthetic 
dimension to religion is the source of its attraction to many peo- 
ple. This is especially true of Roman Catholicism and Judaism, 
which supply their congregants with haunting chants; mag- 
nificent robes and shawls; magical hats, wafers and wine; 
stained-glass windows; and the mysterious cadences of ancient 
languages. The difference between these accoutrements of re- 
ligion and the floral displays, fountains and elaborate sets we 
see on television is that the former are not, in fact, accoutre- 
ments but integral parts of the history and doctrines of the re- 
ligion itself; they require congregants to respond to them with 
suitable reverence. A Jew does not cover his head at prayer 
because a skull cap looks good on television. A Catholic does 
not light a votive candle to improve the look of the altar. Rab- 
bis, priests and Presbyterian ministers do not, in the midst of a 
service, take testimony from movie stars to find out why they 
are religious people. The spectacle we find in true religions has 
as its purpose enchantment, not entertainment. The distinction 
is critical. By endowing things with magic, enchantment is the 
means through which we may gain access to sacredness. Enter- 
tainment is the means through which we distance ourselves 
from it. 

The reply to this is that most of the religion available to us on 
television is "fundamentalist,” which explicitly disdains ritual 
and theology in favor of direct communication with the Bible 
itself, that is, with God. Without ensnaring myself in a theologi- 
cal argument for which I am unprepared, I think it both fair and 
obvious to say that on television, God is a vague and subordi- 
nate character. Though His name is invoked repeatedly, the 
concreteness and persistence of the image of the preacher car- 
ries the clear message that it is he, not He, who must be wor- 
shipped. I do not mean to imply that the preacher wishes it to 

Shuffle Off to Bethlehem 


be so; only that the power of a close-up televised face, in color, 
makes idolatry a continual hazard. Television is, after all, a form 
of graven imagery far more alluring than a golden calf. I suspect 
(though I have no external evidence of it) that Catholic objec- 
tions to Bishop Fulton Sheen's theatrical performances on tele- 
vision (of several years back) sprang from the impression that 
viewers were misdirecting their devotions, away from God and 
toward Bishop Sheen, whose piercing eyes, awesome cape and 
stately tones were as close a resemblance to a deity as charisma 

Television's strongest point is that it brings personalities into 
our hearts, not abstractions into our heads. That is why CBS' 
programs about the universe were called “Walter Cronkite's 
Universe." One would think that the grandeur of the universe 
needs no assistance from Walter Cronkite. One would think 
wrong. CBS knows that Walter Cronkite plays better on televi- 
sion than the Milky Way. And Jimmy Swaggart plays better 
than God. For God exists only in our minds, whereas Swaggart 
is there, to be seen, admired, adored. Which is why he is the star 
of the show. And why Billy Graham is a celebrity, and why Oral 
Roberts has his own university, and why Robert Schuller has a 
crystal cathedral all to himself. If I am not mistaken, the word 
for this is blasphemy. 

There is a final argument that whatever criticisms may be 
made of televised religion, there remains the inescapable fact 
that it attracts viewers by the millions. This would appear to be 
the meaning of the statements, quoted earlier by Billy Graham 
and Pat Robertson, that there is a need for it among the multi- 
tude. To which the best reply I know was made by Hannah 
Arendt, who, in reflecting on the products of mass culture, 

This state of affairs, which indeed is equalled nowhere else in the 

world, can properly be called mass culture; its promoters are nei- 
ther the masses nor their entertainers, but are those who try to 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


entertain the masses with what once was an authentic object of 
culture, or to persuade them that Hamlet can be as entertaining as 
My Fair Lady, and educational as well. The danger of mass educa- 
tion is precisely that it may become very entertaining indeed; 
there are many great authors of the past who have survived cen- 
turies of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question 
whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of 
what they have to say . 4 

If we substitute the word "religion" for Hamlet, and the 
phrase "great religious traditions" for "great authors of the 
past," this quotation may stand as the decisive critique of tele- 
vised religion. There is no doubt, in other words, that religion 
can be made entertaining. The question is. By doing so, do we 
destroy it as an "authentic object of culture"? And does the 
popularity of a religion that employs the full resources of vaude- 
ville drive more traditional religious conceptions into manic 
and trivial displays? I have already referred to Cardinal O'Con- 
nor's embarrassing attempts to be well liked and amusing, and 
to a parish priest who cheerfully tries to add rock music to Cath- 
olic education. I know of one rabbi who has seriously proposed 
to his congregation that Luciano Pavarotti be engaged to sing 
Kol Nidre at a Yom Kippur service. He believes that the event 
would fill the synagogue as never before. Who can doubt it? 
But as Hannah Arendt would say, that is the problem, not a 
solution to one. As a member of the Commission on Theology, 
Education and the Electronic Media of the National Council of 
the Churches of Christ, I am aware of the deep concern among 
"established" Protestant religions about the tendency toward 
refashioning Protestant services so that they are more televisi- 
ble. It is well understood at the National Council that the dan- 
ger is not that religion has become the content of television 
shows but that television shows may become the content of 

9 - 

Reach Out 
and Elect Someone 

In The Last Hurrah. Edwin O'Connor's fine novel about lusty 
party politics in Boston, Mayor Frank Skeffington tries to in- 
struct his young nephew in the realities of political machinery. 
Politics, he tells him, is the greatest spectator sport in America. 
In 1966, Ronald Reagan used a different metaphor. "Politics," 
he said, "is just like show business." 1 

Although sports has now become a major branch of show 
business, it still contains elements that make Skeffington's vi- 
sion of politics somewhat more encouraging than Reagan's. In 
any sport the standard of excellence is well known to both the 
players and spectators, and an athlete's reputation rises and falls 
by his or her proximity to that standard. Where an athlete 
stands in relation to it cannot be easily disguised or faked, 
which means that David Garth can do very little to improve the 
image of an outfielder with a .2 18 batting average. It also means 
that a public opinion poll on the question. Who is the best 
woman tennis player in the world?, is meaningless. The public's 
opinion has nothing to do with it. Martina Navratilova's serve 
provides the decisive answer. 

One may also note that spectators at a sporting event are usu- 
ally well aware of the rules of the game and the meaning of 
each piece of the action. There is no way for a batter who strikes 
out with the bases loaded to argue the spectators into believing 
that he has done a useful thing for his team (except, perhaps, by 
reminding them that he could have hit into a double play). The 
difference between hits and strike-outs, touchdowns and fum- 


Amusing Ourselves to Death 


bles, aces and double faults cannot be blurred, even by the 
pomposities and malapropisms of a Howard Cosell. If politics 
were like a sporting event, there would be several virtues to 
attach to its name: clarity, honesty, excellence. 

But what virtues attach to politics if Ronald Reagan is right? 
Show business is not entirely without an idea of excellence, but 
its main business is to please the crowd, and its principal instru- 
ment is artifice. If politics is like show business, then the idea is 
not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if 
you are, which is another matter altogether. And what the 
other matter is can be expressed in one word: advertising. In 
Joe McGinnis' book about Richard Nixon's campaign in 1968, 
The Selling of the President, he said much of what needs to be said 
about politics and advertising, both in his title and in the book. 
But not quite all. For though the selling of a President is an 
astonishing and degrading thing, it is only part of a larger point: 
In America, the fundamental metaphor for political discourse is 
the television commercial. 

The television commercial is the most peculiar and pervasive 
form of communication to issue forth from the electric plug. An 
American who has reached the age of forty will have seen well 
over one million television commercials in his or her lifetime, 
and has close to another million to go before the first Social 
Security check arrives. We may safely assume, therefore, that 
the television commercial has profoundly influenced American 
habits of thought. Certainly, there is no difficulty in demonstrat- 
ing that it has become an important paradigm for the structure 
of every type of public discourse. My major purpose here is to 
show how it has devastated political discourse. But there may 
be some value in my pointing, first, to its effect on commerce 

By bringing together in compact form all of the arts of show 
business — music, drama, imagery, humor, celebrity — the tele- 
vision commercial has mounted the most serious assault on 
capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. To un- 

Reach Out and Elect Someone 


derstand why, we must remind ourselves that capitalism, like 
science and liberal democracy, was an outgrowth of the En- 
lightenment. Its principal theorists, even its most prosperous 
practitioners, believed capitalism to be based on the idea that 
both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and 
reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest. If 
greed was taken to be the fuel of the capitalist engine, then 
surely rationality was the driver. The theory states, in part, that 
competition in the marketplace requires that the buyer not only 
knows what is good for him but also what is good. If the seller 
produces nothing of value, as determined by a rational market- 
place, then he loses out. It is the assumption of rationality 
among buyers that spurs competitors to become winners, and 
winners to keep on winning. Where it is assumed that a buyer is 
unable to make rational decisions, laws are passed to invalidate 
transactions, as, for example, those which prohibit children 
from making contracts. In America, there even exists in law a 
requirement that sellers must tell the truth about their products, 
for if the buyer has no protection from false claims, rational 
decision-making is seriously impaired. 

Of course, the practice of capitalism has its contradictions. 
Cartels and monopolies, for example, undermine the theory. 
But television commercials make hash of it. To take the simplest 
example: To be rationally considered, any claim — commercial 
or otherwise — must be made in language. More precisely, it 
must take the form of a proposition, for that is the universe of 
discourse from which such words as "true” and "false” come. If 
that universe of discourse is discarded, then the application of 
empirical tests, logical analysis or any of the other instruments 
of reason are impotent. 

The move away from the use of propositions in commercial 
advertising began at the end of the nineteenth century. But it 
was not until the 1950's that the television commercial made 
linguistic discourse obsolete as the basis for product decisions. 
By substituting images for claims, the pictorial commercial 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


made emotional appeal, not tests of truth, the basis of consumer 
decisions. The distance between rationality and advertising is 
now so wide that it is difficult to remember that there once 
existed a connection between them. Today, on television com- 
mercials, propositions are as scarce as unattractive people. The 
truth or falsity of an advertiser's claim is simply not an issue. A 
McDonald's commercial, for example, is not a series of testable, 
logically ordered assertions. It is a drama — a mythology, if you 
will — of handsome people selling, buying and eating hamburg- 
ers, and being driven to near ecstasy by their good fortune. No 
claims are made, except those the viewer projects onto or infers 
from the drama. One can like or dislike a television commercial, 
of course. But one cannot refute it. 

Indeed, we may go this far: The television commercial is not 
at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about 
the character of the consumers of products. Images of movie 
stars and famous athletes, of serene lakes and macho fishing 
trips, of elegant dinners and romantic interludes, of happy fami- 
lies packing their station wagons for a picnic in the country — 
these tell nothing about the products being sold. But they tell 
everything about the fears, fancies and dreams of those who 
might buy them. What the advertiser needs to know is not what 
is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer. 
And so, the balance of business expenditures shifts from product 
research to market research. The television commercial has ori- 
ented business away from making products of value and toward 
making consumers feel valuable, which means that the business 
of business has now become pseudo-therapy. The consumer is a 
patient assured by psycho-dramas. 

All of this would come as a great surprise to Adam Smith, just 
as the transformation of politics would be equally surprising to 
the redoubtable George Orwell. It is true, as George Steiner has 
remarked, that Orwell thought of Newspeak as originating, in 
part, from ''the verbiage of commercial advertising.'' But when 
Orwell wrote in his famous essay "The Politics of the English 

Reach Out and Elect Someone 


Language" that politics has become a matter of "defending the 
indefensible," he was assuming that politics would remain a 
distinct, although corrupted, mode of discourse. His contempt 
was aimed at those politicians who would use sophisticated 
versions of the age-old arts of double-think, propaganda and 
deceit. That the defense of the indefensible would be conducted 
as a form of amusement did not occur to him. He feared the 
politician as deceiver, not as entertainer. 

The television commercial has been the chief instrument in 
creating the modern methods of presenting political ideas. It has 
accomplished this in two ways. The first is by requiring its form 
to be used in political campaigns. It is not necessary, I take it, to 
say very much about this method. Everyone has noticed and 
worried in varying degrees about it, including former New York 
City mayor John Lindsay, who has proposed that political 
"commercials" be prohibited. Even television commentators 
have brought it to our attention, as for example. Bill Moyers in 
"The Thirty-second President," a documentary on his excellent 
television series "A Walk Through the 20th Century." My own 
awakening to the power of the television commercial as politi- 
cal discourse came as a result of a personal experience of a few 
years back, when I played a minuscule role in Ramsey Clark's 
Senate campaign against Jacob Javits in New York. A great be- 
liever in the traditional modes of political discourse, Clark pre- 
pared a small library of carefully articulated position papers on 
a variety of subjects from race relations to nuclear power to the 
Middle East. He filled each paper with historical background, 
economic and political facts, and, I thought, an enlightened so- 
ciological perspective. He might as well have drawn cartoons. 
In fact, Jacob Javits did draw cartoons, in a manner of speaking. 
If Javits had a carefully phrased position on any issue, the fact 
was largely unknown. He built his campaign on a series of 
thirty-second television commercials in which he used visual 
imagery, in much the same way as a McDonald's commercial, to 
project himself as a man of experience, virtue and piety. For all I 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


know, Javits believed as strongly in reason as did Ramsey Clark. 
But he believed more strongly in retaining his seat in the Sen- 
ate. And he knew full well in what century we are living. He 
understood that in a world of television and other visual media, 
"political knowledge" means having pictures in your head 
more than having words. The record will show that this insight 
did not fail him. He won the election by the largest plurality in 
New York State history. And I will not labor the commonplace 
that any serious candidate for high political office in America 
requires the services of an image manager to design the kinds of 
pictures that will lodge in the public's collective head. I will 
want to return to the implications of "image politics" but it is 
necessary, before that, to discuss the second method by which 
the television commercial shapes political discourse. 

Because the television commercial is the single most volu- 
minous form of public communication in our society, it was 
inevitable that Americans would accommodate themselves to 
the philosophy of television commercials. By "accommodate," I 
mean that we accept them as a normal and plausible form of 
discourse. By "philosophy," I mean that the television commer- 
cial has embedded in it certain assumptions about the nature of 
communication that run counter to those of other media, espe- 
cially the printed word. For one thing, the commercial insists on 
an unprecedented brevity of expression. One may even say, in- 
stancy. A sixty-second commercial is prolix; thirty seconds is 
longer than most; fifteen to twenty seconds is about average. 
This is a brash and startling structure for communication since, 
as I remarked earlier, the commercial always addresses itself to 
the psychological needs of the viewer. Thus it is not merely 
therapy. It is instant therapy. Indeed, it puts forward a psycho- 
logical theory of unique axioms: The commercial asks us to be- 
lieve that all problems are solvable, that they are solvable fast, 
and that they are solvable fast through the interventions of 
technology, techniques and chemistry. This is, of course, a pre- 
posterous theory about the roots of discontent, and would ap- 

Reach Out and Elect Someone 131 

pear so to anyone hearing or reading it. But the commercial 
disdains exposition, for that takes time and invites argument. It 
is a very bad commercial indeed that engages the viewer in 
wondering about the validity of the point being made. That is 
why most commercials use the literary device of the pseudo- 
parable as a means of doing their work. Such "parables” as The 
Ring Around the Collar, The Lost Traveler's Checks and The 
Phone Call from the Son Far Away not only have irrefutable 
emotional power but, like Biblical parables, are unambiguously 
didactic. The television commercial is about products only in 
the sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of 
whales, which is to say, it isn't. Which is to say further, it is 
about how one ought to live one's life. Moreover, commercials 
have the advantage of vivid visual symbols through which we 
may easily learn the lessons being taught. Among those lessons 
are that short and simple messages are preferable to long and 
complex ones; that drama is to be preferred over exposition; 
that being sold solutions is better than being confronted with 
questions about problems. Such beliefs would naturally have 
implications for our orientation to political discourse; that is to 
say, we may begin to accept as normal certain assumptions 
about the political domain that either derive from or are ampli- 
fied by the television commercial. For example, a person who 
has seen one million television commercials might well believe 
that all political problems have fast solutions through simple 
measures — or ought to. Or that complex language is not to be 
trusted, and that all problems lend themselves to theatrical ex- 
pression. Or that argument is in bad taste, and leads only to an 
intolerable uncertainty. Such a person may also come to believe 
that it is not necessary to draw any line between politics and 
other forms of social life. Just as a television commercial will 
use an athlete, an actor, a musician, a novelist, a scientist or a 
countess to speak for the virtues of a product in no way within 
their domain of expertise, television also frees politicians from 
the limited field of their own expertise. Political figures may 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


show up anywhere, at any time, doing anything, without being 
thought odd, presumptuous, or in any way out of place. Which 
is to say, they have become assimilated into the general televi- 
sion culture as celebrities. 

Being a celebrity is quite different from being well known. 
Harry Truman was well known but he was not a celebrity. 
Whenever the public saw him or heard him, Truman was talk- 
ing politics. It takes a very rich imagination to envision Harry 
Truman or, for that matter, his wife, making a guest appearance 
on "The Goldbergs" or "I Remember Mama." Politics and pol- 
iticians had nothing to do with these shows, which people 
watched for amusement, not to familiarize themselves with po- 
litical candidates and issues. 

It is difficult to say exactly when politicians began to put 
themselves forward, intentionally, as sources of amusement. In 
the 1950's, Senator Everett Dirksen appeared as a guest on 
"What's My Line?" When he was running for office, John F. 
Kennedy allowed the television cameras of Ed Murrow's "Per- 
son to Person" to invade his home. When he was not run- 
ning for office, Richard Nixon appeared for a few seconds on 
"Laugh-In," an hour-long comedy show based on the format of 
a television commercial. By the 1970's, the public had started to 
become accustomed to the notion that political figures were to 
be taken as part of the world of show business. In the 1980's 
came the deluge. Vice-presidential candidate William Miller did 
a commercial for American Express. So did the star of the Wa- 
tergate Hearings, Senator Sam Ervin. Former President Gerald 
Ford joined with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for 
brief roles on "Dynasty." Massachusetts Governor Mike Du- 
kakis appeared on "St. Elsewhere." Speaker of the House Tip 
O'Neill did a stint on "Cheers." Consumer advocate Ralph 
Nader, George McGovern and Mayor Edward Koch hosted 
"Saturday Night Live." Koch also played the role of a fight 
manager in a made-for-television movie starring James Cagney. 
Mrs. Nancy Reagan appeared on "DifPrent Strokes." Would 

Reach Out and Elect Someone 


anyone be surprised if Gary Hart turned up on “Hill Street 
Blues”? Or if Geraldine Ferraro played a small role as a Queens 
housewife in a Francis Coppola film? 

Although it may go too far to say that the politician-as- 
celebrity has, by itself, made political parties irrelevant, there is 
certainly a conspicuous correlation between the rise of the for- 
mer and the decline of the latter. Some readers may remember 
when voters barely knew who the candidate was and, in any 
case, were not preoccupied with his character and personal life. 
As a young man, I balked one November at voting for a Demo- 
cratic mayoralty candidate who. it seemed to me, was both un- 
intelligent and corrupt. “What has that to do with it?” my 
father protested. “All Democratic candidates are unintelligent 
and corrupt. Do you want the Republicans to win?” He meant 
to say that intelligent voters favored the party that best repre- 
sented their economic interests and sociological perspective. To 
vote for the "best man" seemed to him an astounding and naive 
irrelevance. He never doubted that there were good men among 
Republicans. He merely understood that they did not speak for 
his class. He shared, with an unfailing eye, the perspective of 
Big Tim Sullivan, a leader of New York's Tammany Hall in its 
glory days. As Terence Moran recounts in his essay, “Politics 
1984," Sullivan was once displeased when brought the news 
that the vote in his precinct was 6,382 for the Democrat and two 
for the Republican. In evaluating this disappointing result, Sul- 
livan remarked, "Sure, didn't Kelly come to me to say his wife's 
cousin was running on the Republican line and didn't I, in the 
interests of domestic tranquility, give him leave to vote Re- 
publican? But what I want to know is, who else voted Re- 
publican?” 2 

I will not argue here the wisdom of this point of view. There 
may be a case for choosing the best man over party {although I 
know of none). The point is that television does not reveal who 
the best man is. In fact, television makes impossible the deter- 
mination of who is better than whom, if we mean by "better" 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


such things as more capable in negotiation, more imaginative in 
executive skill, more knowledgeable about international affairs, 
more understanding of the interrelations of economic systems, 
and so on. The reason has, almost entirely, to do with "image.” 
But not because politicians are preoccupied with presenting 
themselves in the best possible light. After all, who isn't? It is a 
rare and deeply disturbed person who does not wish to project a 
favorable image. But television gives image a bad name. For on 
television the politician does not so much offer the audience an 
image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience. 
And therein lies one of the most powerful influences of the tele- 
vision commercial on political discourse. 

To understand how image politics works on television, we 
may use as an entry point the well-known commercial from 
which this chapter takes the first half of its title. I refer to the 
Bell Telephone romances, created by Mr. Steve Horn, in which 
we are urged to "Reach Out and Touch Someone." The "some- 
one" is usually a relative who lives in Denver or Los Angeles or 
Atlanta — in any case, very far from where we are, and who, in 
a good year, we will be lucky to see on Thanksgiving Day. The 
"someone” used to play a daily and vital role in our lives; that is 
to say, used to be a member of the family. Though American 
culture stands vigorously opposed to the idea of family, there 
nonetheless still exists a residual nag that something essential to 
our lives is lost when we give it up. Enter Mr. Horn's commer- 
cials. These are thirty-second homilies concerned to provide a 
new definition of intimacy in which the telephone wire will 
take the place of old-fashioned co-presence. Even further, these 
commercials intimate a new conception of family cohesion for a 
nation of kinsmen who have been split asunder by automobiles, 
jet aircraft and other instruments of family suicide. In analyzing 
these commercials. Jay Rosen makes the following observation: 
"Horn isn't interested in saying anything, he has no message to 
get across. His goal is not to provide information about Bell, but 
to somehow bring out from the broken ties of millions of Amer- 

Reach Out and Elect Someone 


ican lives a feeling which might focus on the telephone. . . . 
Horn does not express himself. You do not express yourself. 
Horn expresses you.” 3 

This is the lesson of all great television commercials: They 
provide a slogan, a symbol or a focus that creates for viewers a 
comprehensive and compelling image of themselves. In the 
shift from party politics to television politics, the same goal is 
sought. We are not permitted to know who is best at being Pres- 
ident or Governor or Senator, but whose image is best in touch- 
ing and soothing the deep reaches of our discontent. We look at 
the television screen and ask, in the same voracious way as the 
Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, "Mirror, mirror on 
the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” We are inclined to vote 
for those whose personality, family life, and style, as imaged on 
the screen, give back a better answer than the Queen received. 
As Xenophanes remarked twenty-five centuries ago, men al- 
ways make their gods in their own image. But to this, television 
politics has added a new wrinkle: Those who would be gods 
refashion themselves into images the viewers would have 
them be. 

And so, while image politics preserves the idea of self-interest 
voting, it alters the meaning of "self-interest." Big Tim Sullivan 
and my father voted for the party that represented their inter- 
ests, but "interests" meant to them something tangible — pa- 
tronage, preferential treatment, protection from bureaucracy, 
support for one's union or community. Thanksgiving turkeys 
for indigent families. Judged by this standard, blacks may be the 
only sane voters left in America. Most of the rest of us vote our 
interests, but they are largely symbolic ones, which is to say, of 
a psychological nature. Like television commercials, image pol- 
itics is a form of therapy, which is why so much of it is charm, 
good looks, celebrity and personal disclosure. It is a sobering 
thought to recall that there are no photographs of Abraham 
Lincoln smiling, that his wife was in all likelihood a psycho- 
path, and that he was subject to lengthy fits of depression. He 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


would hardly have been well suited for image politics. We do 
not want our mirrors to be so dark and so far from amusing. 
What I am saying is that just as the television commercial emp- 
ties itself of authentic product information so that it can do its 
psychological work, image politics empties itself of authentic 
political substance for the same reason. 

It follows from this that history can play no significant role in 
image politics. For history is of value only to someone who 
takes seriously the notion that there are patterns in the past 
which may provide the present with nourishing traditions. 
"The past is a world," Thomas Carlyle said, "and not a void of 
grey haze." But he wrote this at a time when the book was the 
principal medium of serious public discourse. A book is all his- 
tory. Everything about it takes one back in time — from the way 
it is produced to its linear mode of exposition to the fact that the 
past tense is its most comfortable form of address. As no other 
medium before or since, the book promotes a sense of a co- 
herent and usable past. In a conversation of books, history, as 
Carlyle understood it, is not only a world but a living world. It is 
the present that is shadowy. 

But television is a speed-of-light medium, a present-centered 
medium. Its grammar, so to say, permits no access to the past. 
Everything presented in moving pictures is experienced as hap- 
pening "now," which is why we must be told in language that a 
videotape we are seeing was made months before. Moreover, 
like its forefather, the telegraph, television needs to move frag- 
ments of information, not to collect and organize them. Carlyle 
was more prophetic than he could imagine: The literal gray 
haze that is the background void on all television screens is an 
apt metaphor of the notion of history the medium puts forward. 
In the Age of Show Business and image politics, political dis- 
course is emptied not only of ideological content but of histor- 
ical content, as well. 

Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Liter- 
ature, remarked in his acceptance speech in Stockholm that our 

Reach Out and Elect Someone 


age is characterized by a “refusal to remember"; he cited, 
among other things, the shattering fact that there are now more 
than one hundred books in print that deny that the Holocaust 
ever took place. The historian Carl Schorske has, in my opinion, 
circled closer to the truth by noting that the modern mind has 
grown indifferent to history because history has become useless 
to it; in other words, it is not obstinacy or ignorance but a sense 
of irrelevance that leads to the diminution of history. Televi- 
sion's Bill Moyers inches still closer when he says, “I worry that 
my own business . . . helps to make this an anxious age of 
agitated amnesiacs. . . . We Americans seem to know every- 
thing about the last twenty-four hours but very little of the last 
sixty centuries or the last sixty years ." 4 Terence Moran, I be- 
lieve, lands on the target in saying that with media whose struc- 
ture is biased toward furnishing images and fragments, we are 
deprived of access to an historical perspective. In the absence of 
continuity and context, he says, "bits of information cannot be 
integrated into an intelligent and consistent whole."’ We do 
not refuse to remember; neither do we find it exactly useless to 
remember. Rather, we are being rendered unfit to remember. 
For if remembering is to be something more than nostalgia, it 
requires a contextual basis — a theory, a vision, a metaphor — 
something within which facts can be organized and patterns dis- 
cerned. The politics of image and instantaneous news provides 
no such context, is, in fact, hampered by attempts to provide 
any. A mirror records only what you are wearing today. It is 
silent about yesterday. With television, we vault ourselves into 
a continuous, incoherent present. "History," Henry Ford said, 
"is bunk." Henry Ford was a typographic optimist. "History," 
the Electric Plug replies, "doesn't exist." 

If these conjectures make sense, then in this Orwell was 
wrong once again, at least for the Western democracies. He en- 
visioned the demolition of history, but believed that it would be 
accomplished by the state; that some equivalent of the Ministry 
of Truth would systematically banish inconvenient facts and de- 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


stroy the records of the past. Certainly, this is the way of the 
Soviet Union, our modern-day Oceania. But as Huxley more 
accurately foretold it, nothing so crude as all that is required. 
Seemingly benign technologies devoted to providing the popu- 
lace with a politics of image, instancy and therapy may disap- 
pear history just as effectively, perhaps more permanently, and 
without objection. 

We ought also to look to Huxley, not Orwell, to understand 
the threat that television and other forms of imagery pose to the 
foundation of liberal democracy — namely, to freedom of in- 
formation. Orwell quite reasonably supposed that the state, 
through naked suppression, would control the flow of informa- 
tion, particularly by the banning of books. In this prophecy, 
Orwell had history strongly on his side. For books have always 
been subjected to censorship in varying degrees wherever they 
have been an important part of the communication landscape. 
In ancient China, the Analects of Confucius were ordered de- 
stroyed by Emperor Chi Huang Ti. Ovid's banishment from 
Rome by Augustus was in part a result of his having written Ars 
Amatoria. Even in Athens, which set enduring standards of 
intellectual excellence, books were viewed with alarm. In 
Areopagitica. Milton provides an excellent review of the many 
examples of book censorship in Classical Greece, including the 
case of Protagoras, whose books were burned because he began 
one of his discourses with the confession that he did not know 
whether or not there were gods. But Milton is careful to observe 
that in all the cases before his own time, there were only two 
types of books that, as he puts it, “the magistrate cared to take 
notice of": books that were blasphemous and books that were 
libelous. Milton stresses this point because, writing almost two 
hundred years after Gutenberg, he knew that the magistrates of 
his own era, if unopposed, would disallow books of every con- 
ceivable subject matter. Milton knew, in other words, that it 
was in the printing press that censorship had found its true 
metier; that, in fact, information and ideas did not become a 

Reach Out and Elect Someone 


profound cultural problem until the maturing of the Age of 
Print. Whatever dangers there may be in a word that is written, 
such a word is a hundred times more dangerous when stamped 
by a press. And the problem posed by typography was recog- 
nized early; for example, by Henry VIII, whose Star Chamber 
was authorized to deal with wayward books. It continued to be 
recognized by Elizabeth I, the Stuarts, and many other post- 
Gutenberg monarchs, including Pope Paul IV, in whose reign 
the first Index Librorum Prohibitorum was drawn. To paraphrase 
David Riesman only slightly, in a world of printing, information 
is the gunpowder of the mind; hence come the censors in their 
austere robes to dampen the explosion. 

Thus, Orwell envisioned that ( 1 ) government control over (2) 
printed matter posed a serious threat for Western democracies. 
He was wrong on both counts. (He was, of course, right on both 
counts insofar as Russia, China and other pre-electronic cul- 
tures are concerned.) Orwell was, in effect, addressing himself 
to a problem of the Age of Print — in fact, to the same problem 
addressed by the men who wrote the United States Constitu- 
tion. The Constitution was composed at a time when most free 
men had access to their communities through a leaflet, a news- 
paper or the spoken word. They were quite well positioned to 
share their political ideas with each other in forms and contexts 
over which they had competent control. Therefore, their great- 
est worry was the possibility of government tyranny. The Bill of 
Rights is largely a prescription for preventing government from 
restricting the flow of information and ideas. But the Founding 
Fathers did not foresee that tyranny by government might be 
superseded by another sort of problem altogether, namely, the 
corporate state, which through television now controls the flow 
of public discourse in America. I raise no strong objection to this 
fact (at least not here) and have no intention of launching into a 
standard-brand complaint against the corporate state. I merely 
note the fact with apprehension, as did George Gerbner, Dean of 
the Annenberg School of Communication, when he wrote: 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


Television is the new state religion run by a private Ministry of 
Culture (the three networks), offering a universal curriculum for 
all people, financed by a form of hidden taxation without repre- 
sentation. You pay when you wash, not when you watch, and 
whether or not you care to watch. . . . 6 

Earlier in the same essay, Gerbner said: 

Liberation cannot be accomplished by turning (television! off. 
Television is for most people the most attractive thing going any 
time of the day or night. We live in a world in which the vast 
majority will not turn off. If we don't get the message from the 
tube, we get it through other people. 

I do not think Professor Gerbner meant to imply in these sen- 
tences that there is a conspiracy to take charge of our symbolic 
world by the men who run the “Ministry of Culture.” I even 
suspect he would agree with me that if the faculty of the An- 
nenberg School of Communication were to take over the three 
networks, viewers would hardly notice the difference. I believe 
he means to say — and in any case, I do — that in the Age of 
Television, our information environment is completely different 
from what it was in 1783; that we have less to fear from govern- 
ment restraints than from television glut; that, in fact, we have 
no way of protecting ourselves from information disseminated 
by corporate America; and that, therefore, the battles for liberty 
must be fought on different terrains from where they once 

For example, I would venture the opinion that the traditional 
civil libertarian opposition to the banning of books from school 
libraries and from school curricula is now largely irrelevant. 
Such acts of censorship are annoying, of course, and must be 
opposed. But they are trivial. Even worse, they are distracting, 
in that they divert civil libertarians from confronting those 
questions that have to do with the claims of new technologies. 

Reach Out and Elect Someone 


To put it plainly, a student's freedom to read is not seriously 
injured by someone's banning a book on Long Island or in Ana- 
heim or anyplace else. But as Gerbner suggests, television 
clearly does impair the student's freedom to read, and it does so 
with innocent hands, so to speak. Television does not ban 
books, it simply displaces them. 

The fight against censorship is a nineteenth-century issue 
which was largely won in the twentieth. What we are con- 
fronted with now is the problem posed by the economic and 
symbolic structure of television. Those who run television do 
not limit our access to information but in fact widen it. Our 
Ministry of Culture is Huxleyan, not Orwellian. It does every- 
thing possible to encourage us to watch continuously. But what 
we watch is a medium which presents information in a form 
that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and 
noncontextual; that is to say, information packaged as enter- 
tainment. In America, we are never denied the opportunity to 
amuse ourselves. 

Tyrants of all varieties have always known about the value of 
providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying 
discontent. But most of them could not have even hoped for a 
situation in which the masses would ignore that which does not 
amuse. That is why tyrants have always relied, and still do, on 
censorship. Censorship, after all, is the tribute tyrants pay to the 
assumption that a public knows the difference between serious 
discourse and entertainment — and cares. How delighted would 
be all the kings, czars and fiihrers of the past (and commissars of 
the present) to know that censorship is not a necessity when all 
political discourse takes the form of a jest. 

I O- 

Teaching as an 
Amusing Activity 

There could not have been a safer bet when it began in 1969 
than that "Sesame Street" would be embraced by children, par- 
ents and educators. Children loved it because they were raised 
on television commercials, which they intuitively knew were 
the most carefully crafted entertainments on television. To 
those who had not yet been to school, even to those who had 
just started, the idea of being taught by a series of commercials 
did not seem peculiar. And that television should entertain 
them was taken as a matter of course. 

Parents embraced "Sesame Street" for several reasons, 
among them that it assuaged their guilt over the fact that they 
could not or would not restrict their children's access to televi- 
sion. "Sesame Street" appeared to justify allowing a four- or 
five-year-old to sit transfixed in front of a television screen for 
unnatural periods of time. Parents were eager to hope that tele- 
vision could teach their children something other than which 
breakfast cereal has the most crackle. At the same time, "Ses- 
ame Street" relieved them of the responsibility of teaching their 
pre-school children how to read — no small matter in a culture 
where children are apt to be considered a nuisance. They could 
also plainly see that in spite of its faults, "Sesame Street" was 
entirely consonant with the prevailing spirit of America. Its use 
of cute puppets, celebrities, catchy tunes, and rapid-fire editing 
was certain to give pleasure to the children and would therefore 
serve as adequate preparation for their entry into a fun-loving 


Teaching as an Amusing Activity 


As for educators, they generally approved of "Sesame 
Street," too. Contrary to common opinion, they are apt to find 
new methods congenial, especially if they are told that educa- 
tion can be accomplished more efficiently by means of the new 
techniques. (That is why such ideas as "teacher-proof' text- 
books, standardized tests, and, now, micro-computers have 
been welcomed into the classroom.) "Sesame Street" appeared 
to be an imaginative aid in solving the growing problem of 
teaching Americans how to read, while, at the same time, en- 
couraging children to love school. 

We now know that "Sesame Street" encourages children to 
love school only if school is like "Sesame Street." Which is to 
say, we now know that "Sesame Street" undermines what the 
traditional idea of schooling represents. Whereas a classroom is 
a place of social interaction, the space in front of a television set 
is a private preserve. Whereas in a classroom, one may ask a 
teacher questions, one can ask nothing of a television screen. 
Whereas school is centered on the development of language, 
television demands attention to images. Whereas attending 
school is a legal requirement, watching television is an act of 
choice. Whereas in school, one fails to attend to the teacher at 
the risk of punishment, no penalties exist for failing to attend to 
the television screen. Whereas to behave oneself in school 
means to observe rules of public decorum, television watching 
requires no such observances, has no concept of public de- 
corum. Whereas in a classroom, fun is never more than a means 
to an end, on television it is the end in itself. 

Yet "Sesame Street" and its progeny, "The Electric Com- 
pany," are not to be blamed for laughing the traditional class- 
room out of existence. If the classroom now begins to seem a 
stale and flat environment for learning, the inventors of televi- 
sion itself are to blame, not the Children's Television Work- 
shop. We can hardly expect those who want to make good 
television shows to concern themselves with what the class- 
room is for. They are concerned with what television is for. This 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


does not mean that "Sesame Street" is not educational. It is, in 
fact, nothing but educational — in the sense that every television 
show is educational. Just as reading a book — any kind of book 
— promotes a particular orientation toward learning, watching 
a television show does the same. "The Little House on the 
Prairie," "Cheers" and "The Tonight Show" are as effective as 
"Sesame Street" in promoting what might be called the televi- 
sion style of learning. And this style of learning is, by its nature, 
hostile to what has been called book-learning or its hand- 
maiden, school-learning. If we are to blame "Sesame Street" for 
anything, it is for the pretense that it is any ally of the class- 
room. That, after all, has been its chief claim on foundation and 
public money. As a television show, and a good one, "Sesame 
Street" does not encourage children to love school or anything 
about school. It encourages them to love television. 

Moreover, it is important to add that whether or not "Sesame 
Street" teaches children their letters and numbers is entirely ir- 
relevant. We may take as our guide here John Dewey's observa- 
tion that the content of a lesson is the least important thing 
about learning. As he wrote in Experience and Education: "Per- 
haps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a 
person learns only what he is studying at the time. Collateral 
learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes . . . may 
be and often is more important than the spelling lesson or 
lesson in geography or history. . . . For these attitudes are fun- 
damentally what count in the future." 1 In other words, the 
most important thing one learns is always something about how 
one learns. As Dewey wrote in another place, we learn what 
we do. Television educates by teaching children to do what 
television-viewing requires of them. And that is as precisely re- 
mote from what a classroom requires of them as reading a book 
is from watching a stage show. 

Although one would not know it from consulting various re- 
cent proposals on how to mend the educational system, this 
point — that reading books and watching television differ en- 

Teaching as an Amusing Activity 145 

tirely in what they imply about learning — is the primary educa- 
tional issue in America today. America is. in fact, the leading 
case in point of what may be thought of as the third great crisis 
in Western education. The first occurred in the fifth century 
b.c., when Athens underwent a change from an oral culture to 
an alphabet- writing culture. To understand what this meant, 
we must read Plato. The second occurred in the sixteenth cen- 
tury, when Europe underwent a radical transformation as a re- 
sult of the printing press. To understand what this meant, we 
must read John Locke. The third is happening now, in America, 
as a result of the electronic revolution, particularly the in- 
vention of television. To understand what this means, we must 
read Marshall McLuhan. 

We face the rapid dissolution of the assumptions of an educa- 
tion organized around the slow-moving printed word, and the 
equally rapid emergence of a new education based on the 
speed-of-light electronic image. The classroom is, at the mo- 
ment, still tied to the printed word, although that connection is 
rapidly weakening. Meanwhile, television forges ahead, mak- 
ing no concessions to its great technological predecessor, creat- 
ing new conceptions of knowledge and how it is acquired. One 
is entirely justified in saying that the major educational enter- 
prise now being undertaken in the United States is not happen- 
ing in its classrooms but in the home, in front of the television 
set, and under the jurisdiction not of school administrators and 
teachers but of network executives and entertainers. I don't 
mean to imply that the situation is a result of a conspiracy or 
even that those who control television want this responsibility. I 
mean only to say that, like the alphabet or the printing press, 
television has by its power to control the time, attention and 
cognitive habits of our youth gained the power to control their 

This is why I think it accurate to call television a curriculum. 
As I understand the word, a curriculum is a specially con- 
structed information system whose purpose is to influence. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


teach, train or cultivate the mind and character of youth. Televi- 
sion, of course, does exactly that, and does it relentlessly. In so 
doing, it competes successfully with the school curriculum. By 
which I mean, it damn near obliterates it. 

Having devoted an earlier book. Teaching as a Conserving Ac- 
tivity. to a detailed examination of the antagonistic nature of the 
two curriculums — television and school — I will not burden the 
reader or myself with a repetition of that analysis. But I would 
like to recall tvVo points that I feel I did not express forcefully 
enough in that book and that happen to be central to this one. I 
refer, first, to the fact that television's principal contribution to 
educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertain- 
ment are inseparable. This entirely original conception is to be 
found nowhere in educational discourses, from Confucius to 
Plato to Cicero to Locke to John Dewey. In searching the liter- 
ature of education, you will find it said by some that children 
will learn best when they are interested in what they are learn- 
ing. You will find it said — Plato and Dewey emphasized this 
— that reason is best cultivated when it is rooted in robust emo- 
tional ground. You will even find some who say that learning is 
best facilitated by a loving and benign teacher. But no one has 
ever said or implied that significant learning is effectively, dura- 
bly and truthfully achieved when education is entertainment. 
Education philosophers have assumed that becoming accultur- 
ated is difficult because it necessarily involves the imposition of 
restraints. They have argued that there must be a sequence to 
learning, that perseverance and a certain measure of perspi- 
ration are indispensable, that individual pleasures must fre- 
quently be submerged in the interests of group cohesion, and 
that learning to be critical and to think conceptually and rigor- 
ously do not come easily to the young but are hard-fought vic- 
tories. Indeed, Cicero remarked that the purpose of education is 
to free the student from the tyranny of the present, which can- 
not be pleasurable for those, like the young, who are struggling 

Teaching as an Amusing Activity 


hard to do the opposite — that is, accommodate themselves to 
the present. 

Television offers a delicious and, as I have said, original al- 
ternative to all of this. We might say there are three com- 
mandments that form the philosophy of the education which 
television offers. The influence of these commandments is ob- 
servable in every type of television programming — from "Ses- 
ame Street" to the documentaries of "Nova" and "The National 
Geographic" to "Fantasy Island" to MTV. The commandments 
are as follows: 

Thou shalt have no prerequisites 

Every television program must be a complete package in itself. 
No previous knowledge is to be required. There must not be 
even a hint that learning is hierarchical, that it is an edifice con- 
structed on a foundation. The learner must be allowed to enter 
at any point without prejudice. This is why you shall never hear 
or see a television program begin with the caution that if the 
viewer has not seen the previous programs, this one will be 
meaningless. Television is a nongraded curriculum and ex- 
cludes no viewer for any reason, at any time. In other words, in 
doing away with the idea of sequence and continuity in educa- 
tion, television undermines the idea that sequence and con- 
tinuity have anything to do with thought itself. 

Thou shalt induce no perplexity 

In television teaching, perplexity is a superhighway to low rat- 
ings. A perplexed learner is a learner who will turn to another 
station. This means that there must be nothing that has to be 
remembered, studied, applied or, worst of all, endured. It is 
assumed that any information, story or idea can be made imme- 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


diately accessible, since the contentment, not the growth, of the 
learner is paramount. 

Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues 
visited upon Egypt 

Of all the enemies of television-teaching, including continuity 
and perplexity, none is more formidable than exposition. Argu- 
ments, hypotheses, discussions, reasons, refutations or any of 
the traditional instruments of reasoned discourse turn television 
into radio or, worse, third-rate printed matter. Thus, television- 
teaching always takes the form of story-telling, conducted 
through dynamic images and supported by music. This is as 
characteristic of "Star Trek” as it is of "Cosmos,” of "DifPrent 
Strokes” as of "Sesame Street," of commercials as of "Nova." 
Nothing will be taught on television that cannot be both visu- 
alized and placed in a theatrical context. 

The name we may properly give to an education without 
prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment. And 
when one considers that save for sleeping there is no activ- 
ity that occupies more of an American youth's time than 
television-viewing, we cannot avoid the conclusion that a mas- 
sive reorientation toward learning is now taking place. Which 
leads to the second point I wish to emphasize: The conse- 
quences of this reorientation are to be observed not only in the 
decline of the potency of the classroom but, paradoxically, in 
the refashioning of the classroom into a place where both teach- 
ing and learning are intended to be vastly amusing activities. 

I have already referred to the experiment in Philadelphia in 
which the classroom is reconstituted as a rock concert. But this 
is only the silliest example of an attempt to define education 
as a mode of entertainment. Teachers, from primary grades 
through college, are increasing the visual stimulation of their 
lessons; are reducing the amount of exposition their students 
must cope with; are relying less on reading and writing assign- 

Teaching as an Amusing Activity 149 

merits; and are reluctantly concluding that the principal means 
by which student interest may be engaged is entertainment. 
With no difficulty I could fill the remaining pages of this chapter 
with examples of teachers' efforts — in some instances, uncon- 
scious — to make their classrooms into second-rate television 
shows. But I will rest my case with "The Voyage of the Mimi," 
which may be taken as a synthesis, if not an apotheosis, of the 
New Education. "The Voyage of the Mimi" is the name of an 
expensive science and mathematics project that has brought to- 
gether some of the most prestigious institutions in the field of 
education — the United States Department of Education, the 
Bank Street College of Education, the Public Broadcasting Sys- 
tem, and the publishing firm Holt, Rinehart and Winston. The 
project was made possible by a $3.65 million grant from the 
Department of Education, which is always on the alert to put its 
money where the future is. And the future is "The Voyage of 
the Mimi." To describe the project succinctly, I quote from four 
paragraphs in The New York Times of August 7, 1984; 

Organized around a twenty-six-unit television series that depicts 
the adventures of a floating whale-research laboratory, [the pro- 
ject] combines television viewing with lavishly illustrated books 
and computer games that simulate the way scientists and navi- 
gators work. . . . 

"The Voyage of the Mimi" is built around fifteen- minute televi- 
sion programs that depict the adventures of four young people 
who accompany two scientists and a crusty sea captain on a voy- 
age to monitor the behavior of humpback whales off the coast of 
Maine. The crew of the converted tuna trawler navigates the ship, 
tracks down the whales and struggles to survive on an uninhab- 
ited island after a storm damages the ship's hull. . . . 

Each dramatic episode is then followed by a fifteen-minute doc- 
umentary on related themes. One such documentary involved a 
visit by one of the teen-age actors to Ted Taylor, a nuclear phys- 
icist in Greenport, L.I., who has devised a way of purifying sea 
water by freezing it. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


The television programs, which teachers are free to record off 
the air and use at their convenience, are supplemented by a series 
of books and computer exercises that pick up four academic 
themes that emerge naturally from the story line: map and naviga- 
tional skills, whales and their environment, ecological systems 
and computer literacy. 

The television programs have been broadcast over PBS; the 
books and computer software have been provided by Holt, 
Rinehart and Winston; the educational expertise by the faculty 
of the Bank Street College. Thus, "The Voyage of the Mimi" is 
not to be taken lightly. As Frank Withrow of the Department of 
Education remarked, "We consider it the flagship of what we 
are doing. It is a model that others will begin to follow." Every- 
one involved in the project is enthusiastic, and extraordinary 
claims of its benefits come trippingly from their tongues. Janice 
Trebbi Richards of Holt, Rinehart and Winston asserts, "Re- 
search shows that learning increases when information is pre- 
sented in a dramatic setting, and television can do this better 
than any other medium." Officials of the Department of Ed- 
ucation claim that the appeal of integrating three media — 
television, print, and computers — lies in their potential for 
cultivating higher-order thinking skills. And Mr. Withrow is 
quoted as saying that projects like "The Voyage of the Mimi" 
could mean great financial savings, that in the long run "it is 
cheaper than anything else we do." Mr. Withrow also sug- 
gested that there are many ways of financing such projects. 
"With 'Sesame Street,'" he said, "it took five or six years, but 
eventually you can start bringing in the money with T-shirts 
and cookie jars." 

We may start thinking about what "The Voyage of the Mimi" 
signifies by recalling that the idea is far from original. What is 
here referred to as "integrating three media" or a "multi-media 
presentation" was once called "audio-visual aids," used by 
teachers for years, usually for the modest purpose of enhancing 

Teaching as an Amusing Activity 


student interest in the curriculum. Moreover, several years ago, 
the Office of Education (as the Department was then called) 
supplied funds to WNET for a similarly designed project called 
"Watch Your Mouth," a series of television dramatizations in 
which young people inclined to misuse the English language 
fumbled their way through a variety of social problems. Lin- 
guists and educators prepared lessons for teachers to use in 
conjunction with each program. The dramatizations were com- 
pelling — although not nearly as good as "Welcome Back, Kot- 
ter," which had the unassailable advantage of John Travolta's 
charisma — but there exists no evidence that students who were 
required to view "Watch Your Mouth" increased their compe- 
tence in the use of the English language. Indeed, since there is 
no shortage of mangled English on everyday commercial televi- 
sion, one wondered at the time why the United States govern- 
ment would have paid anyone to go to the trouble of producing 
additional ineptitudes as a source of classroom study. A vid- 
eotape of any of David Susskind's programs would provide an 
English teacher with enough linguistic aberrations to fill a se- 
mester's worth of analysis. 

Nonetheless, the Department of Education has forged ahead, 
apparently in the belief that ample evidence — to quote Ms. 
Richards again — "shows that learning increases when informa- 
tion is presented in a dramatic setting, and that television can 
do this better than any other medium." The most charitable 
response to this claim is that it is misleading. George Comstock 
and his associates have reviewed 2,800 studies on the general 
topic of television's influence on behavior, including cognitive 
processing, and are unable to point to persuasive evidence that 
"learning increases when information is presented in a dra- 
matic setting." 2 Indeed, in studies conducted by Cohen and Sa- 
lomon; Meringoff; Jacoby, Hoyer and Sheluga; Stauffer, Frost 
and Rybolt; Stem; Wilson; Neuman; Katz, Adoni and Parness; 
and Gunter, quite the opposite conclusion is justified. 3 Jacoby 
et al. found, for example, that only 3.5 percent of viewers were 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


able to answer successfully twelve true/false questions concern- 
ing two thirty-second segments of commercial television pro- 
grams and advertisements. Stauffer et al. found in studying 
students' responses to a news program transmitted via televi- 
sion, radio and print, that print significantly increased correct 
responses to questions regarding the names of people and num- 
bers contained in the material. Stern reported that 5 1 percent of 
viewers could not recall a single item of news a few minutes 
after viewing a news program on television. Wilson found that 
the average television viewer could retain only 20 percent of the 
information contained in a fictional televised news story. Katz 
et al. found that 2 1 percent of television viewers could not recall 
any news items within one hour of broadcast. On the basis of 
his and other studies, Salomon has concluded that “the mean- 
ings secured from television are more likely to be segmented, 
concrete and less inferential, and those secured from reading 
have a higher likelihood of being better tied to one's stored 
knowledge and thus are more likely to be inferential.'' 4 In other 
words, so far as many reputable studies are concerned, televi- 
sion viewing does not significantly increase learning, is inferior 
to and less likely than print to cultivate higher-order, inferential 

But one must not make too much of the rhetoric of grants- 
manship. We are all inclined to transform our hopes into ten- 
uous claims when an important project is at stake. Besides, I 
have no doubt that Ms. Richards can direct us to several studies 
that lend support to her enthusiasm. The point is that if you 
want money for the redundant purpose of getting children to 
watch even more television than they already do — and drama- 
tizations at that — you have to escalate the rhetoric to Herculean 

What is of greatest significance about “The Voyage of the 
Mimi" is that the content selected was obviously chosen be- 
cause it is eminently televisible. Why are these students studying 
the behavior of humpback whales? How critical is it that the 

Teaching as an Amusing Activity 


"academic themes" of navigational and map-reading skills be 
learned? Navigational skills have never been considered an "ac- 
ademic theme" and in fact seem singularly inappropriate for 
most students in big cities. Why has it been decided that 
"whales and their environment" is a subject of such compelling 
interest that an entire year's work should be given to it? 

I would suggest that "The Voyage of the Mimi" was con- 
ceived by someone's asking the question. What is television 
good for?, not. What is education good for? Television is good 
for dramatizations, shipwrecks, seafaring adventures, crusty old 
sea captains, and physicists being interviewed by actor- 
celebrities. And that, of course, is what we have got in "The 
Voyage of the Mimi." The fact that this adventure sit-com is 
accompanied by lavishly illustrated books and computer games 
only underscores that the television presentation controls the 
curriculum. The books whose pictures the students will scan 
and the computer games the students will play are dictated by 
the content of the television shows, not the other way around. 
Books, it would appear, have now become an audio-visual aid; 
the principal carrier of the content of education is the television 
show, and its principal claim for a preeminent place in the cur- 
riculum is that it is entertaining. Of course, a television produc- 
tion can be used to stimulate interest in lessons, or even as the 
focal point of a lesson. But what is happening here is that 
the content of the school curriculum is being determined by the 
character of television, and even worse, that character is appar- 
ently not included as part of what is studied. One would have 
thought that the school room is the proper place for students to 
inquire into the ways in which media of all kinds — including 
television — shape people's attitudes and perceptions. Since our 
students will have watched approximately sixteen thousand 
hours of television by high school's end, questions should have 
arisen, even in the minds of officials at the Department of Edu- 
cation, about who will teach our students how to look at televi- 
sion, and when not to, and with what critical equipment when 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


they do. "The Voyage of the Mimi" project bypasses these ques- 
tions; indeed, hopes that the students will immerse themselves 
in the dramatizations in the same frame of mind used when 
watching "St. Elsewhere" or "Hill Street Blues." (One may also 
assume that what is called "computer literacy" does not involve 
raising questions about the cognitive biases and social effects of 
the computer, which, I would venture, are the most important 
questions to address about new technologies.) 

"The Voyage of the Mimi," in other words, spent $3.65 mil- 
lion for the purpose of using media in exactly the manner that 
media merchants want them to be used — mindlessly and invisi- 
bly, as if media themselves have no epistemological or political 
agenda. And, in the end, what will the students have learned? 
They will, to be sure, have learned something about whales, 
perhaps about navigation and map reading, most of which they 
could have learned just as well by other means. Mainly, they 
will have learned that learning is a form of entertainment or, 
more precisely, that anything worth learning can take the form 
of an entertainment, and ought to. And they will not rebel if 
their English teacher asks them to learn the eight parts of speech 
through the medium of rock music. Or if their social studies 
teacher sings to them the facts about the War of 1 8 1 2. Or if their 
physics comes to them on cookies and T-shirts. Indeed, they 
will expect it and thus will be well prepared to receive their 
politics, their religion, their news and their commerce in the 
same delightful way. 


The Huxleyan 

There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be 
shriveled. In the first — the Orwellian — culture becomes a 
prison. In the second — the Huxleyan — culture becomes a bur- 

No one needs to be reminded that our world is now marred 
by many prison-cultures whose structure Orwell described ac- 
curately in his parables. If one were to read both 1984 and Ani- 
mal Farm, and then for good measure, Arthur Koestler's 
Darkness at Noon, one would have a fairly precise blueprint of 
the machinery of thought-control as it currently operates in 
scores of countries and on millions of people. Of course, Orwell 
was not the first to teach us about the spiritual devastations 
of tyranny. What is irreplaceable about his work is his in- 
sistence that it makes little difference if our wardens are in- 
spired by right- or left-wing ideologies. The gates of the prison 
are equally impenetrable, surveillance equally rigorous, icon- 
worship equally pervasive. 

What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technol- 
ogy, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy 
with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes 
suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy. Big Brother does 
not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no 
need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a popu- 
lation becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is re- 
defined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious 
public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in 


Amusing Ourselves to Death 


short, a people become an audience and their public business a 
vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is 
a clear possibility. 

In America, Orwell's prophecies are of small relevance, but 
Huxley's are well under way toward being realized. For Amer- 
ica is engaged in the world's most ambitious experiment to 
accommodate itself to the technological distractions made pos- 
sible by the electric plug. This is an experiment that began 
slowly and modestly in the mid-nineteenth century and has 
now, in the latter half of the twentieth, reached a perverse ma- 
turity in America's consuming love-affair with television. As 
nowhere else in the world. Americans have moved far and fast 
in bringing to a close the age of the slow-moving printed word, 
and have granted to television sovereignty over all of their in- 
stitutions. By ushering in the Age of Television, America has 
given the world the clearest available glimpse of the Huxleyan 

Those who speak about this matter must often raise their 
voices to a near- hysterical pitch, inviting the charge that they 
are everything from wimps to public nuisances to Jeremiahs. 
But they do so because what they want others to see appears 
benign, when it is not invisible altogether. An Orwellian world 
is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan. 
Everything in our background has prepared us to know and 
resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us. We are 
not likely, for example, to be indifferent to the voices of the 
Sakharovs and the Timmermans and the Walesas. We take 
arms against such a sea of troubles, buttressed by the spirit of 
Milton, Bacon, Voltaire, Goethe and Jefferson. But what if there 
are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take 
arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, 
and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse 
dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture's being 
drained by laughter? 

I fear that our philosophers have given us no guidance in this 

The Huxleyan Warning 


matter. Their warnings have customarily been directed against 
those consciously formulated ideologies that appeal to the 
worst tendencies in human nature. But what is happening in 
America is not the design of an articulated ideology. No Mein 
Kampf or Communist Manifesto announced its coming. It comes 
as the unintended consequence of a dramatic change in our 
modes of public conversation. But it is an ideology nonetheless, 
for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and 
ideas, about which there has been no consensus, no discussion 
and no opposition. Only compliance. Public consciousness has 
not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology. This, 
in spite of the fact that before our very eyes technology has 
altered every aspect of life in America during the past eighty 
years. For example, it would have been excusable in 1 905 for us 
to be unprepared for the cultural changes the automobile would 
bring. Who could have suspected then that the automobile 
would tell us how we were to conduct our social and sexual 
lives? Would reorient our ideas about what to do with our for- 
ests and cities? Would create new ways of expressing our per- 
sonal identity and social standing? 

But it is much later in the game now, and ignorance of the 
score is inexcusable. To be unaware that a technology comes 
equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that 
technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology 
is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain 
and simple. Moreover, we have seen enough by now to know 
that technological changes in our modes of communication are 
even more ideology- laden than changes in our modes of trans- 
portation. Introduce the alphabet to a culture and you change 
its cognitive habits, its social relations, its notions of commu- 
nity, history and religion. Introduce the printing press with 
movable type, and you do the same. Introduce speed-of-light 
transmission of images and you make a cultural revolution. 
Without a vote. Without polemics. Without guerrilla resistance. 
Here is ideology, pure if not serene. Here is ideology without 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


words, and all the more powerful for their absence. All that is 
required to make it stick is a population that devoutly believes 
in the inevitability of progress. And in this sense, all Americans 
are Marxists, for we believe nothing if not that history is moving 
us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the 
force behind that movement. 

Thus, there are near insurmountable difficulties for anyone 
who has written such a book as this, and who wishes to end it 
with some remedies for the affliction. In the first place, not 
everyone believes a cure is needed, and in the second, there 
probably isn't any. But as a true-blue American who has im- 
bibed the unshakable belief that where there is a problem, there 
must be a solution, I shall conclude with the following sugges- 

We must, as a start, not delude ourselves with preposterous 
notions such as the straight Luddite position as outlined, for 
example, in Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of 
Television. Americans will not shut down any part of their tech- 
nological apparatus, and to suggest that they do so is to make 
no suggestion at all. It is almost equally unrealistic to expect 
that nontrivial modifications in the availability of media will 
ever be made. Many civilized nations limit by law the amount 
of hours television may operate and thereby mitigate the role 
television plays in public life. But I believe that this is not a 
possibility in America. Once having opened the Happy Medium 
to full public view, we are not likely to countenance even its 
partial closing. Still, some Americans have been thinking along 
these lines. As I write, a story appears in The New York Times 
(September 27, 1984) about the plans of the Farmington, Con- 
necticut, Library Council to sponsor a "TV Turnoff." It appears 
that such an effort was made the previous year, the idea being 
to get people to stop watching television for one month. The 
Times reports that the turnoff the previous January was widely 
noted by the media. Ms. Ellen Babcock, whose family partici- 
pated, is quoted as saying, "It will be interesting to see if the 

The Huxleyan Warning 


impact is the same this year as last year, when we had terrific 
media coverage.” In other words, Ms. Babcock hopes that by 
watching television, people will learn that they ought to stop 
watching television. It is hard to imagine that Ms. Babcock does 
not see the irony in this position. It is an irony that I have con- 
fronted many times in being told that I must appear on televi- 
sion to promote a book that warns people against television. 
Such are the contradictions of a television-based culture. 

In any case, of how much help is a one-month turnoff? It is a 
mere pittance; that is to say, a penance. How comforting it must 
be when the folks in Farmington are done with their punish- 
ment and can return to their true occupation. Nonetheless, one 
applauds their effort, as one must applaud the efforts of those 
who see some relief in limiting certain kinds of content on tele- 
vision — for example, excessive violence, commercials on chil- 
dren's shows, etc. I am particularly fond of John Lindsay's 
suggestion that political commercials be banned from television 
as we now ban cigarette and liquor commercials. I would gladly 
testify before the Federal Communications Commission as to 
the manifold merits of this excellent idea. To those who would 
oppose my testimony by claiming that such a ban is a clear 
violation of the First Amendment, I would offer a compromise: 
Require all political commercials to be preceded by a short 
statement to the effect that common sense has determined that 
watching political commercials is hazardous to the intellectual 
health of the community. 

I am not very optimistic about anyone's taking this sugges- 
tion seriously. Neither do I put much stock in proposals to im- 
prove the quality of television programs. Television, as I have 
implied earlier, serves us most usefully when presenting junk- 
entertainment; it serves us most ill when it co-opts serious 
modes of discourse — news, politics, science, education, com- 
merce, religion — and turns them into entertainment packages. 
We would all be better off if television got worse, not better. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


"The A-Team" and "Cheers" are no threat to our public health. 
"60 Minutes," "Eye-Witness News" and "Sesame Street" are. 

The problem, in any case, does not reside in what people 
watch. The problem is in that we watch. The solution must be 
found in how we watch. For I believe it may fairly be said that 
we have yet to learn what television is. And the reason is that 
there has been no worthwhile discussion, let alone widespread 
public understanding, of what information is and how it gives 
direction to a culture. There is a certain poignancy in this, since 
there are no people who more frequently and enthusiastically 
use such phrases as "the information age," "the information 
explosion," and "the information society." We have apparently 
advanced to the point where we have grasped the idea that a 
change in the forms, volume, speed and context of information 
means something, but we have not got any further. 

What is information? Or more precisely, what are informa- 
tion? What are its various forms? What conceptions of intelli- 
gence, wisdom and learning does each form insist upon? What 
conceptions does each form neglect or mock? What are the 
main psychic effects of each form? What is the relation between 
information and reason? What is the kind of information that 
best facilitates thinking? Is there a moral bias to each informa- 
tion form? What does it mean to say that there is too much 
information? How would one know? What redefinitions of im- 
portant cultural meanings do new sources, speeds, contexts and 
forms of information require? Does television, for example, give 
a new meaning to "piety," to "patriotism," to "privacy"? Does 
television give a new meaning to "judgment" or to "under- 
standing"? How do different forms of information persuade? Is 
a newspaper's "public" different from television's "public"? 
How do different information forms dictate the type of content 
that is expressed? 

These questions, and dozens more like them, are the means 
through which it might be possible for Americans to begin talk- 
ing back to their television sets, to use Nicholas Johnson's 

The Huxleyan Warning 


phrase. For no medium is excessively dangerous if its users un- 
derstand what its dangers are. It is not important that those who 
ask the questions arrive at my answers or Marshall McLuhan's 
(quite different answers, by the way). This is an instance in 
which the asking of the questions is sufficient. To ask is to break 
the spell. To which I might add that questions about the psy- 
chic, political and social effects of information are as applicable 
to the computer as to television. Although I believe the com- 
puter to be a vastly overrated technology, I mention it here be- 
cause, clearly, Americans have accorded it their customary 
mindless inattention; which means they will use it as they are 
told, without a whimper. Thus, a central thesis of computer 
technology — that the principal difficulty we have in solving 
problems stems from insufficient data — will go unexamined. 
Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive 
collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great 
value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of 
importance to most people and have created at least as many 
problems for them as they may have solved. 

In any case, the point I am trying to make is that only 
through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and 
effects of information, through a demystification of media, is 
there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over 
television, or the computer, or any other medium. How is such 
media consciousness to be achieved? There are only two an- 
swers that come to mind, one of which is nonsense and can be 
dismissed almost at once; the other is desperate but it is all we 

The nonsensical answer is to create television programs 
whose intent would be, not to get people to stop watching tele- 
vision but to demonstrate how television ought to be viewed, to 
show how television recreates and degrades our conception of 
news, political debate, religious thought, etc. I imagine such 
demonstrations would of necessity take the form of parodies, 
along the lines of "Saturday Night Live" and "Monty Python," 

Amusing Ourselves to Death 


the idea being to induce a nationwide horse laugh over televi- 
sion's control of public discourse. But, naturally, television 
would have the last laugh. In order to command an audience 
large enough to make a difference, one would have to make the 
programs vastly amusing, in the television style. Thus, the act of 
criticism itself would, in the end, be co-opted by television. The 
parodists would become celebrities, would star in movies, and 
would end up making television commercials. 

The desperate answer is to rely on the only mass medium of 
communication that, in theory, is capable of addressing the 
problem: our schools. This is the conventional American solu- 
tion to all dangerous social problems, and is, of course, based on 
a naive and mystical faith in the efficacy of education. The pro- 
cess rarely works. In the matter at hand, there is even less rea- 
son than usual to expect it to. Our schools have not yet even got 
around to examining the role of the printed word in shaping 
our culture. Indeed, you will not find two high school seniors in 
a hundred who could tell you — within a five- hundred-year 
margin of error — when the alphabet was invented. I suspect 
most do not even know that the alphabet was invented. I have 
found that when the question is put to them, they appear 
puzzled, as if one had asked. When were trees invented, or 
clouds? It is the very principle of myth, as Roland Barthes 
pointed out, that it transforms history into nature, and to ask of 
our schools that they engage in the task of de- mythologizing 
media is to ask something the schools have never done. 

And yet there is reason to suppose that the situation is not 
hopeless. Educators are not unaware of the effects of television 
on their students. Stimulated by the arrival of the computer, 
they discuss it a great deal — which is to say, they have become 
somewhat "media conscious." It is true enough that much of 
their consciousness centers on the question. How can we use 
television (or the computer, or word processor) to control edu- 
cation? They have not yet got to the question. How can we use 
education to control television (or the computer, or word pro- 

The Huxleyan Warning 


cessor)? But our reach for solutions ought to exceed our present 
grasp, or what's our dreaming for? Besides, it is an acknowl- 
edged task of the schools to assist the young in learning how to 
interpret the symbols of their culture. That this task should now 
require that they Ieam how to distance themselves from their 
forms of information is not so bizarre an enterprise that we can- 
not hope for its inclusion in the curriculum; even hope that it 
will be placed at the center of education. 

What I suggest here as a solution is what Aldous Huxley sug- 
gested, as well. And I can do no better than he. He believed with 
H. G. Wells that we are in a race between education and disas- 
ter, and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our un- 
derstanding the politics and epistemology of media. For in the 
end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in 
Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of 
thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing 
about and why they had stopped thinking. 


Chapter l : The Medium Is the Metaphor 

1. As quoted in the Wisconsin State Journal. August 24, 1983, Section 
3, page 1. 

2. Cassirer, p. 43. 

3. Frye, p. 227. 

Chapter 2: Media as Epistemology 

1. Frye, p. 217. 

2. Frye, p. 218. 

3. Frye, p. 218. 

4. As quoted in Ong, "Literacy and the Future of Print," pp. 201 — 


5. Ong, Orality. p. 35. 

6. Ong, Orality. p. 109. 

7. Jerome Bruner, in Studies in Cognitive Growth, states that growth is 
"as much from the outside in as from the inside out," and that 
"much of [cognitive growth] consists in a human being's becom- 
ing linked with culturally transmitted 'amplifiers' of motoric, sen- 
sory, and reflective capacities." (pp. 1—2) 

According to Goody, in The Domestication of the Savage Mind, 
"[writing] changes the nature of the representations of the world 
(cognitive processes) for those who cannot [read]." He continues: 
"The existence of the alphabet therefore changes the type of data 
that an individual is dealing with, and it changes the repertoire of 
programmes he has available for treating his data." (p. 110) 

Julian Jaynes, in The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of 




the Bicameral Mind, states that the role of “writing in the break- 
down of the bicameral voices is tremendously important.” He 
claims that the written word served as a “replacement" for the 
hallucinogenic image, and took up the right hemispheric function 
of sorting out and fitting together data. 

Walter Ong, in The Presence of the Word, and Marshall McLuhan, 
in Understanding Media, stress media's effects on the variations in 
the ratio and balance among the senses. One might add that as 
early as 1938, Alfred North Whitehead (in Modes of Thought) called 
attention to the need for a thorough study of the effects of changes 
in media on the organization of the sensorium. 

Chapter 3: Typographic America 

1. Franklin, p. 175. 

2. Hart, p. 8. 

3. Hart, p. 8. 

4. Hart. p. 8. 

5. Hart, p. 15. 

6. Lockridge, p. 184. 

7. Lockridge, p. 184. 

8. Hart, p. 47. 

9. Mumford, p. 136. 

10. Stone, p. 42. 

11. Hart, p. 31. 

12. Boorstin, p. 315. 

13. Boorstin, p. 315. 

14. Hart, p. 39. 

15. Hart, p. 45. 

16. Fast, p. x (in Introduction). 

17. This press was not the first established on the American continent. 
The Spanish had established a printing office in Mexico a hundred 
years earlier. 

18. Mott, p. 7. 

19. Boorstin, p. 320. 

20. Mott, p. 9. 

21. Lee, p. 10. 



22. Boorstin, p. 326. 

23. Boorstin, p. 327. 

24. Hart, p. 27. 

25. Tocqueville, p. 58. 

26. Tocqueville, pp. 5—6. 

27. Hart, p. 86. 

28. Curti, pp. 353-354. 

29. Hart, p. 153. 

30. Hart, p. 74. 

31. Curti, p. 337. 

32. Hart, p. 102. 

33. Berger, p. 183. 

34. Curti, p. 356. 

35. Berger, p. 158. 

36. Berger, p. 158. 

37. Berger, p. 158. 

38. Curti, p. 356. 

39. Twain, p. 161. 

40. Hofstadter, p. 145. 

41. Hofstadter, p. 19. 

42. Tocqueville, p. 260. 

43. Miller, p. 269. 

44. Miller, p. 271. 

45. Marx, p. 150. 

Chapter 4: The Typographic Mind 

1. Sparks, p. 4. 

2. Sparks, p. 1 1. 

3. Sparks, p. 87. 

4. Questions were continuously raised about the accuracy of the 
transcriptions of these debates. Robert Hitt was the verbatim re- 
porter for the debates, and he was accused of repairing Lincoln's 
“illiteracies.” The accusations were made, of course, by Lincoln's 
political enemies, who, perhaps, were dismayed by the impression 
Lincoln's performances were making on the country. Hitt emphat- 
ically denied he had "doctored" any of Lincoln's speeches. 



5. Hudson, p. 5. 

6. Sparks, p. 86. 

7. Mill, p. 64. 

8. Hudson, p. 1 10. 

9. Paine, p. 6. 

10. Hudson, p. 132. 

1 1 . Perry Miller, p. 1 5. 

12. Hudson, p. 65. 

13. Hudson, p. 143. 

14. Perry Miller, p. 1 19. 

15. Perry Miller, p. 140. 

16. Perry Miller, pp. 140— 141. 

17. Perry Miller, p. 120. 

18. Perry Miller, p. 153. 

19. Presbrey, p. 244. 

20. Presbrey, p. 126. 

21. Presbrey, p. 157. 

22. Presbrey, p. 235. 

23. Anderson, p. 17. In this connection, it is worth citing a letter, 
dated January 15, 1787, written by Thomas Jefferson to Monsieur 
de Crdve-coeur. In his letter, Jefferson complained that the English 
were trying to claim credit for an American invention: making the 
circumference of a wheel out of one single piece of wood. Jeffer- 
son speculated that Jersey farmers learned how to do this from 
their reading of Homer, who described the process clearly. The 
English must have copied the procedure from Americans, Jeffer- 
son wrote, "because ours are the only farmers who can read 

Chapter 5: The Peek-a-Boo World 

1. Thoreau, p. 36. 

2. Harlow, p. 100. 

3. Czitrom, pp. 15—16. 

4. Sontag, p. 165. 

5. Newhall, p. 33. 

6. Salomon, p. 36. 



7. Sontag. p. 20. 

8. Sontag, p. 20. 

Chapter 6: The Age of Show Business 

1. On July 20, 1984, The New York Times reported that the Chinese 
National Television network had contracted with CBS to broadcast 
sixty-four hours of CBS programming in China. Contracts with 
NBC and ABC are sure to follow. One hopes that the Chinese un- 
derstand that such transactions are of great political consequence. 
The Gang of Four is as nothing compared with the Gang of Three. 

2. This story was carried by several newspapers, including the 
Wisconsin State Journal. February 24, 1983, Section 4, p. 2. 

3. As quoted in The New York Times. June 7, 1 984, Section A, p. 20. 

Chapter 7 : "Now . . . This" 

1. For a fairly thorough report on Ms. Craft's suit, see The New York 
Times. July 29, 1983. 

2. MacNeil, p. 2. 

3. MacNeil, p. 4. 

4. See Time. July 9. 1984, p. 69. 

Chapter 8: Shuffle Off to Bethlehem 

1. Graham, pp. 5—8. For a detailed analysis of Graham's style, see 
Michael Real's Mass Mediated Culture. For an amusing and vitriolic 
one, see Roland Barthes' "Billy Graham at the Winter Cyclo- 
dome," in The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies. Barthes says, "If 
God really does speak through the mouth of Dr. Graham, then God 
is a real blockhead." 

2. As quoted in "Religion in Broadcasting," by Robert Abelman and 
Kimberly Neuendorf, p. 2. This study was funded by a grant from 
Unda-USA, Washington, D.C. 

3. Armstrong, p. 137. 

4. Arendt, p. 352. 



Chapter 9: Reach Out and Elect Someone 

1. Drew, p. 263. 

2. Moran, p. 122. 

3. Rosen, p. 162. 

4. Quoted from a speech given on March, 27, 1984, at the Jewish 
Museum in New York City on the occasion of a conference of the 
National Jewish Archive of Broadcasting. 

5. Moran, p. 125. 

6. From a speech given at the twenty-fourth Media Ecology Confer- 
ence, April 26, 1982, in Saugerties, New York. For a full account of 
Dean Gerbner's views, see "Television: The New State Religion," 
Etcetera 34:2 (June, 1977): 145-150. 

Chapter 10: Teaching as an Amusing Activity 

1. Dewey, p. 48. 

2. G. Comstock, S. Chaffee, N. Katzman, M. McCombs, and D. Rob- 
erts, Television and Human Behavior (New York: Columbia Univer- 
sity Press, 1978). 

3. A. Cohen and G. Salomon, "Children's Literate Television View- 
ing: Surprises and Possible Explanations," Journal of Communica- 
tion 29 (1979): 156—163; L. M. Meringoff, "What Pictures Can 
and Can't Do for Children's Story Comprehension," paper pre- 
sented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Re- 
search Association, April, 1982; J. Jacoby, W. D. Hoyer and D. A. 
Sheluga, Miscomprehension of Televised Communications (New York: 
The Educational Foundation of the American Association of Ad- 
vertising Agencies, 1980); J. Stauffer, R. Frost and W. Rybolt, "Re- 
call and Learning from Broadcast News: Is Print Better?," Journal 
of Broadcasting (Summer, 1981): 253—262; A. Stem, "A Study for 
the National Association for Broadcasting," in M. Barret (ed.). The 
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Neuman, "Patterns of Recall Among Television News Viewers," 
Public Opinion Quarterly 40 (1976): 118—125; E. Katz, H. Adoni 



and P. Pamess, "Remembering the News: What the Pictures Add 
to Recall," Journalism Quarterly 54 (1977): 233—242; B. Gunter, 
"Remembering Television News: Effects of Picture Content," Jour- 
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4. Salomon, p. 81. 


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ABC network movie The Day After, 
and post-show discussion. 88-91 
advertising: newspaper, history of, 
58-60, 74; political, 126, 129- 
1 37, 1 59; television commercials, 
86, 104-5, 126-37, 159 
Agassiz, Louis. 40 
Age of Reason, 5 1 
Age of Reason. The (Paine). 53 
American Mercury. 77 
American Spelling Book (Webster). 37 
Analects (Confucius). I 38 
Anderson. Paul. 62 
Arendt, Hannah. 123—24 
Areopagitica (Milton). 1 38 
Aristotle, 23 
Associated Press, 67 
Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin 
(Franklin), 30-31 
auto industry. 5 

Bakker, Jim, 116. 120 
Baltimore Patriot. 66 
Baptists. 55 

Barthes. Roland. 79. 162 
Bay Psalm Book. 32 
Beecher, Henry Ward, 40 
Bennett, James, 66, 67 
Bible. 9, 18, 31. 32. 53, 96. 122 
“Bonanza" (TV show), 86 
book censorship. 138—41 

Boorstin, Daniel, 34; The Image. 74, 

Boston, 3, 36—37 

Boston Gazette. 37. 59 

Boston News-Letter. 37, 58 

Brave New V/orld (Huxley). 163 

British Broadcasting Corporation, 93 

Brokaw, Tbm. 106 

Bruner. Jerome. 27 

Buckley. William. 89. 9 1 

Bunn. Alfred. 40 

Burns. George. 5 

capitalism. 6, 52. 126—27 

Carlyle, Thomas, 1 36 

Carter, Jimmy. 61 

Cassirer. Ernst. 10 

Catholicism. 122 

Cavett. Dick, 97 

CBS network. 94. 123 

censorship. 138—41 

"Cheers" (TV show). 132. 144, 160 

Chicago. 3. 93 

Children's Television Workshop, 94. 

Cicero. 146 

cities, as metaphors of national 
character, 3—4, 93 
Clark, Ramsey, 129—30 
clocks, 10-11 




college: commencements, televised, 
96—97; 19th-century, 55 
Colonial America, typography in, 
30- 38. 41, 53, 62, 139 
Commager, Henry Steele, 62 
commercials. See television 

Common Seme (Paine), 34-35 
computers. 28, 78, 154, 161 
confessionals, televised, 94 
Confucius. Analects. 1 38 
Congregationalists, 55 
Constitution, U.S., 139 
conversation, 6-7 
“Cosmos" (TV series), 148 
Coswell, Henry, 54, 55 
court trials, televised, 94 
Craft. Christine. 101 
Cronkite, Walter, 123 
crossword puzzles. 76 

Daguerre. Louis. 7 1 
daguerreotype. 71 
Daily News. 74. Ill 
"Dallas" (TV show). 86 
Day After. The (ABC movie), and 
post-show discussion, 88—9 1 
debates: Lincoln- Douglas, 44—49; 

1 984 presidential. 97 
Decalogue. 9 
Deism. 52-53 

Democracy in America (Ibcqueville). 
37-38, 41-42 

Department of Education, 149, 150, 

Description of New England (Smith), 

Dewey, John, 146; Experience and 
Education. 1 44 
Dickens. Charles. 39 
Dickinson, Emily. 48 

Dietrich, Dr. Edward, 93—94 
"Diff'rent Strokes" (TV show), I 32, 

Dirksen, Everett. 1 32 

doctoral oral. 20-2 1 

Douglas, Stephen A., 44—49, 60 

Dryden, John, Fables. 33-34 

Duch6, Jacob, 34 

Dukakis. Mike. 1 32 

Dunkcrs. 30—31 

Dwight. Timothy. 34 

"Dynasty" (TV show). 86. 88, 1 32 

education: Colonial. 33; to control 
television. 162-63; 19th-century. 
38—40, 55, 62; as television 
entertainment, 94. 142—54; "The 
Voyage of the Mimi" programs, 
discussed. 149—54 
Edwards, Jonathan. 54, 56, 1 17; 
Faithful Narrative of the Surprising 
tobrk of God in the Conversion of 
Many Hundred Souls in 
Northhampton. 54; A Treatise 
Concerning Religious Affections. 54 
18th-century religion and 
typography. 42, 52—56. 63 
Einstein, Albert, 61 
elderly, and television, 28 
"The Electric Company" (TV show). 

electricity, 64-65 
Emerson. Ralph Waldo, 40, 48 
Empire of Reason, 48 
England. 36, 37, 52, 86. 1 39 
entertainment. 80; education as, 94, 
142—54; modern cities as, 3-4; 
politics as. 4. 97. 125-37; 
television as, 86-87. 92—98, 1 00- 
1 13. 1 16-124. 126-37 



"Entertainment "tonight" (TV show), 

Episcopalians, 55 

epistemology, media as, 16—29, 78— 

Ervin, Sam, 1 32 
Essay Concerning Human 
Understanding (Locke), 33 
Experience and Education (Dewey), 144 
eyeglasses, invention of, 14 
"Eye-Witness News" (TV show), 160 

Fables (Dryden), 33—34 
Faithful Narrative of the Surprising 
Vtork of God in the Conversion of 
Many Hundred Souls in 
Northhampton (Edwards). 54 
Falwell, Jerry, 54, 56, 88, 116. 121 
Faulkner, William, 77 
Federal Communications Act, 4 
Federalist Papers (Publius), 38 
film, 77, 78, 92 
Finney, Charles, 54, 55, 117 
"Firing Line" (TV show), 91 
Fitzgerald, F. Scott, 77 
Ford, Gerald, 132 
Ford, Henry, 1 37 

Four Arguments for the Elimination of 
Television (Mander). 158 
Franklin. Benjamin, 30—31, 35. 37. 
42, 47 

Franklin, James, 37 
Frelinghuysen, Theodore, 53 
Freud, Sigmund, 6 
Frye, Northrop, 12—13, 17—18 

Galileo. 1 5. 24 
Gertoner, George, 1 39—40 
German Ideology. The (Marx), 42—43 
Goodrich. Samuel. 39 

Goody. Jack, 27 

Graham. Billy. 5, 54, 56, 61, 118, 


Great Awakening, 42, 54 
Greece, Classical, 145, 146; book 
censorship in, 1 38; rhetoric in, 22— 

Greeley, Horace, 40 
Guardian (Steele), 33 
"Gunsmoke" (TV show), 86 

Hamilton, Alexander, 38 
Harris, Benjamin, 36—37 
Harvard University, 35—36, 55 
Havelock. Eric, 27 
Hawthorne, Nathaniel, 48 
Hemingway, Ernest, 77 
Henry VIII, King of England, 1 39 
Herschel. John F. W., 7 1 
Heyman, John. 96 

History and Development of Advertising, 
The (Presbrey). 58 
Hoffman, David, 56 
Hofstadter, Richard. 41 
Holbrook. Josiah, 40 
Homer (Pope), 33 
Horn, Steve, 134-35 
Huxley. Aldous. 111. 138, 155—56, 
163; Brave New Hbrld. 163 

illuminated manuscripts, 27 
Image. The (Boorstin). 74, 76 
Index Librorum Prohibitorum, 1 39 
Iranian hostage crisis, 107 

Jackson, Jesse, 4 

Japan, 5, 86 

Javits, Jacob, 129—30 

Jay. John. 38 

Jaynes, Julian. 27 

Jefferson, Thomas, 47, 53, 62, 108 



Jews, 116, 122 
Johnston, J. F. W„ 40 

Kennedy, Edward, 4 
Kennedy, John F, 1 32 
Kent, James, 56 

Kissinger, Henry, 88-89, 91, 132 
Koch, Edward. 93, 1 32 
"Kojak" (TV show), 86 
Koppel, ltd, 89, 90, 91 

Las Vegas, 3—4, 93 
“Laugh-In" (TV show), 132 
lecture halls, 19th-century, 39—40 
legal system, 19—20; 18- and 19th- 
century, 56—58; televised. 94 
leisure, changing role of, 61 
libraries, 19th-century, 38 
Life. 74 

Lincoln, Abraham. 44—49, 56, 135 
Lincoln- Douglas debates, 44-49 
Lindsay, John. 129, 159 
Lippmann, Walter, 108 
literacy rates: Colonial, 31—35; 19th- 
century, 39-40, 55 
“The Little House on the Prairie" (TV 
show), 144 

Locke, John, 145; Essay Concerning 
Human Understanding. 33 
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, 48 
Look. 74 

Lowell. James Russell, 48 
Luther, Martin, 32, 85 
Lyceum Movement, 40 

McCarthy, Joseph, 1 1 6 
McGinnis, Joe, The Selling of the 
President. 126 
McGovern, George. 4. 1 32 
McGuffy Reader. 38 

McLuhan, Marshall, 8. 9, 10, 27, 83, 

1 16, 145. 161 
McNamara, Robert. 88, 89 
MacNeil, Robert. 105-6, 1 1 1 
"MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour" (TV 
show), 105—6 
Madison, James. 38. 47 
Magnetic Tfclegraph Company, 67 
Mander. Jerry, Four Arguments for the 
Elimination of THevision. 1 58 
Markham. Edwin. 48 
Marshall, John, 56. 57 
Marx, Karl. 5. 6; The German Ideology. 

Mayflower. 31 

media, as epistemology, 16-29, 78- 

media-metaphors, 13—15 
medical practices, televised, 93-94 
medium and technology, distinctions 
between, 84-85 
"Meet the Press" (TV show), 91 
Melville. Herman, 48 
metaphors, media. 13—15 
Methodists, 55 
microscope, 14 
Middle Ages. 20 
Mill. James, 58 
Mill, John Stuart, 52 
Miller. Perry, 63 
Miller, Reverend Samuel, 37 
Miller, William, 132 
Milosz. Czeslaw, 136—37 
Milton. John, Areopagitica. 1 38 
"Mission: Impossible" (TV show), 86 
mnemonics, 18, 25 
Moral Majority. 88 
Moran, Tfcrence, 1 37 
Morse, Samuel. 65, 66, 67, 70, 71 
Moyers. Bill. 129. 137 



Mumford. Lewis, 10, 33; Technics and 
Civilization. 1 0— 1 1 
music: rock, 112; television, 88, 

Nader. Ralph, 132 
National Religious Broadcasters 
Association. 121 
NBC network. 94 
Nevins, Allan. 62 
New- England Courant. 37 
"The New Media Bible" (movies), 96 
newspapers: advertising in. 58—60, 
74; history of. 36-38, 58-60, 66. 
74; modeled on television. Ill — 

1 12. See also specific names of 

New York Apprentices' Library. 38 

New York City, 3. 93 

New York Daily Mirror. 74 

New Yorker. The. 77 

New York Gazette. 37 

New York Herald. 66, 67, 77 

New York Sun. 66 

New York Times. The. 77. 95, 108, 

149. 158 

Nietzsche, Friedrich, 24 
19th century, 48; advertising. 58—60; 
education, 38-40, 55, 62; legal 
system, 56-58; Lincoln- Douglas 
debates. 44-49; photography, 7 1 . 
74, 76, 77-78; religion. 52-56; 
telegraph, 65-71, 76, 77-78; 
transportation, 64—65; typography, 
38-42, 48-49, 51-63 
Nixon, Richard, 4, 61. 102, 109, 126. 

"Nova" (TV series), 148 
"Now . . . this" mode of discourse, 

O'Connor, Cardinal John J., 93, 124 
Official Video Journal. 96 
O'Neill, Tip, 132 
Ong, Waller, 18-19. 27, 51 
"The Open Mind" (TV show), 91 
oral traditions. 18—23, 25, 39—40, 
44-45, 48-50, 54. 60 
Orwell. George. 110, 111, 1 37-38, 

1 39. 155-56; "The Politics of the 
English Language." 128—29 
Ovid, Ars Amatoria. 1 38 

Paine. Thomas. 35, 47; The Age of 
Reason. 53; Common Sense. 34-35 
pamphlets, colonial, 37—38 
Paul IV. Pope, 1 39 

Pennsylvania Amish, filming of, 95— 

penny newspaper, 66 
People. 112 

Philadelphia, 36, 42. 94 
philosophy, 12 
Phoenix, 93 

photography, 48, 71—76, 77—78, 86. 

pictographic writing. 27 
Plato, 6, 22, 145, 146; on written 
word, 12—13 
Poe, Edgar Allan, 48 
politics, 92; Lincoln-Douglas debates, 
44—49; 1984 presidential debates. 
97; Orwell on, 128-29 
politics, television, 7, 97, 125—41; as 
advertising. 4. 97. 125-37, 159; 
and physical appearance of 
politician. 7, 97, 126 
"The Politics of the English 
Language" (Orwell), 128—29 
polls. 107. 125 
Pope. Alexander, Homer. 33 
Presbyterians, 53, 55 



presidential debates. 1 984. 97 
printed word: advertising, history of, 
58—60; in Colonial times, 30—38, 
41, 53, 62. I 39; decline of, 8-9, 

1 3, 24, 29. 58, 80; effects of 
telegraphy and photography on. 
65-78; invention of. 29; 19th- 
century, 38-42. 48-49. 51—63 
printing press. 35-36, 84-85, 138; 

invention of, 29 
Protagoras, 1 38 
Protestantism, 124 
proverbs, 18—19, 25 
psychoanalysis. 14-15 
Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and 
Dome stick. 36—37 
Pythagoras. 23 

radio. 77, 78, 9 1 , 92, 112-13 

railroads, 64 

Rather, Dan, 106 

reading, changing role of. 60—62 

Reagan. Nancy. 132 

Reagan. Ronald. 4. 97, 108. 109. 

125, 126 
records, 92 

religion, 9, 18; Colonial. 32-33, 42. 
53; 18th- and 19th-century, 42, 
52-56, 63; on television. 93. 94. 
96, 114-24 
resonance, 17—19 
Revere, Paul. 59 

rhetoric: Classical Greek, 22—23; of 
Lincoln-Douglas debates, 44-49 
Roberts, Oral, 54, 56, 116. 123 
Robertson, ClifT, 120 
Robertson. Pat, 1 14—15, 116, 118, 

rock music, 1 1 2 
Roman Catholicism, 122 
Rosen, Jay, 1 34 

Russell. Bertrand, 14. 26 

Quinn, John, 1 12 

Sagan. Carl. 89. 90. 91 
"St. Elsewhere" (TV show), 1 32 
Sakowicz. Reverend Greg. 93 
Satan. 32-33 

"Saturday Night Live" (TV show), 4. 

Schorske. Carl, 1 37 

Schuler, Bernard, 93-94 

Schuller. Robert. 116. 120-21, 123 

science, 52 

Scott. Walter. 38-39 

"Secrets of the Confessional Box" 

(TV show). 94 
Selling of the President. The 
(McGinnis). 126 

"Sesame Street" (TV show), 94. 142— 
144. 150, 160 

"700 Club" (TV show). 114-15 
Shakespeare, William, 35 
Sharswood, George, 56-57 
Sheen, Bishop Fulton, 123 
"60 Minutes" (TV show). 160 
slogans. 60. 70, I 35 
Smith, Adam. 5. 128 
Smith. H. Allen. 99 
Smith. John, Description of New 
England. 3 1 
smoke signals. 7. 8 
Socrates. 21—22 
Solomon, 25 
Sontag, Susan, 73 
Sophists. 22 
Spectator. 33 
sports. 125—26 

"Star "Bek" (TV show). 86. 148 
Steele. Richard, Guardian. 33 
Steinbeck. John, 77 



Steiner, George. 128 
Stiles. Ezra. 52-53 
Story, Joseph, 56 

Stowe, Harriet Beecher, Uncle 7 tint's 
Cabin. 39 
Streep, Meryl, 97 
Sullivan. Big Tbm, 133 
surgery, televised, 93—94 
Swaggart. Jimmy, 54, 115—16, 123 
Swain. William. 67 
Swift. Jonathan. A Tate of a TUb. 33 

Tbft. William Howard, 7 
Talbot, William Henry Fox. 71 
Tale of a TUb. A (Swift), 33 
Taller. 33 

Technics and Civilization (Mumford), 
10-1 I 

technology and medium, distinctions 
between. 84-85 

telegraph. 8, 48, 65-71, 76, 77-78, 

telephone, 78 

television. 7-10, 78-80; as 
education. 94, 142—54; education 
for control of, 162—63; as 
entertainment. 86-87, 92-98, 
100-13, 116-24. 126-37; as 
epistemology, 24—29, 78—80; as 
junk, 16, 159; as myth, 79; as 
politics, 7, 97, 125—41; popularity 
of American programs abroad. 86; 
as religion, 93, 94. 96. 1 14—24; as 
technology vs. medium, 84—85 
television commercials, 86. 104—5, 
126—27; as political discourse. 

126, 129-37, 159 

television news shows, 4, 87—88, 91, 

99— 1 13. 160; appearance and 
credibility of newscaster. 4, 87—88, 

100— 6; discussion following The 

Day After (ABC movie). 88-91; as 
disinformation, 107—8; music on. 
88. 102—3; "Now . . . this" mode 
of discourse, 99—1 13 
Tfcnnent, William, 53 
Teresa, Mother, 96—97 
Terry. Reverend, 1 14 
Thoreau, Henry David, 48, 67; 
Walden. 65 

Thoth (Egyptian god). 13 
Tbcqueville, Alexis de. 39, 56; 

Democracy in America. 37—38, 41— 

"The Tbnight Show" (TV show). 144 
Tbyota, 5 

transportation. 19th-century, 64-65 
Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. 

A (Edwards). 54 
"Trivial Pursuit" (game). 76 
Hriman, Harry, 132 
truth, media as, 16-29, 78—80 
TUmer, Frederick Jackson, 62 
TWain. Mark. 40, 48 
typography. See printed word 
Tyson. Job, 56 

Uncle Tbm's Cabin (Stowe), 39 
Us. 112 

USA Tbday. 1 1 1-12 

Vietnam War, 29 
Virginia Gazette. 38 
voting. 62, 69 

"The Voyage of the Mimi" (TV 
series), 149-54 

Walden (Thoreau), 65 
"A Walk Through the 20th Century" 
(TV series), 129 
Wall Street Journal. 1 1 1 



"Waller Cronkite's Universe" (TV 
show). 123 

Washington. George. 36 
"Watch Your Mouth" (TV 
dramatizations), 151 
Webster, Daniel, 56. 57, 58 
Webster, Noah, American Spelling 
Book. 37 
Wells, H. G., 163 
Westheimer. Dr. Ruth, 5 
"What's My Line?" (TV show). 132 

Whitefield. George, 42. 54, 1 17 
Whitman, Walt. 48 
Wlesel, Elie. 88, 89. 90 
Wirt, William, 56 
Witness (movie). 95-96 
women, frontier, 62 
written word: decline of. 8—9. 13, 24. 
29, 58, 80; early development of, 
12; Plato on, 12-13. See also 
printed word 

Yale University. 55, 96-97